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Removing Politics From Office Proves Difficult For New Deschutes DA

Deschutes County District attorney Patrick Flaherty won a first term in a hotly contested race last year.   He defeated a 20-plus year incumbent by promising take politics out of the DA’s office. 

But as David Nogueras reports, just 3 months into his term, Flaherty finds he can’t shake politics that easily.

Patrick Flaherty says in just a short amount of time he’s been able to make good progress on his campaign promise to fix what he saw as numerous problems within the DA’s office.

Patrick Flaherty: “I meant it during my campaign when I said to people this will an office about justice not about politics.”

But others in the community paint a very different picture.  The new DA has come under fire from some powerful entities, including the Editor-in-Chief of the Bend Bulletin and Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone.

They say that if anything, Flaherty’s actions have further politicized the role of the district attorney. 

Here’s county commissioner Tony DeBone.  He was also newly elected last year.

Tony DeBone: “From my point of view his brochure said ‘justice not politics’ and it seems like politics has jumped right in here as he got into his office.”

DeBone says he doesn’t know Flaherty well but worries recent controversies might impair his ability to function effectively as DA.

The trouble for Flaherty’s administration started before he was even sworn in.  The DA-elect made it known that he intended to shake up the office by not re-appointing some of the deputies employed by his predecessor. 

The deputies organized to form a union, in what they called a push for job security.  But without a ratified contract in place, Flaherty let five DAs go when he took office in January.

Now attorneys for three of the DAs have filed suit against the county and the district attorney’s office.  The $20 million civil suit alleges that the former deputies were fired because they formed a union. 

The suit claims sexual discrimination also played a role in the firings.

Flaherty wouldn’t comment on the litigation. But back in September he told OPB that he might not retain employees who did not agree with his priorities.

Patrick Flaherty: “It is not workable to require any elected public official to work with employees who may disagree with those objectives.  It has great potential to frustrate the will of the electorate.”

The Deschutes County Commissioners essentially backed Flaherty, by putting off approval of a union contract negotiated by his predecessor until after Flaherty took office.

But the questions for the new district attorney didn’t stop there.

The Bend Bulletin wanted to determine the qualifications of Flaherty’s new hires.  The paper filed a public records request for their job applications.

But when it came to light that county personnel failed to remove personal information such as driver license numbers addresses and phone numbers, Flaherty opened a criminal investigation and demanded the paper return the documents.

When the paper refused, Flaherty subpoenaed Bend Bulletin reporter Hillary Borrud.

That drew criticism from Bend Bulletin Editor-in-Chief, John Costa. Costa did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with OPB about Flaherty’s investigation. But in a signed editorial piece last month, he wrote that Flaherty “likes dragging people — public servants and journalists — into grand juries in what is nothing short of witch hunts over non-crimes.”

Costa also suggested that Flaherty was acting like a bully.

The investigation also concerned some in the county commissioners’ office.

Questions about the spiraling cost of the investigation led Commissioner Tony DeBone to suggest cutting Flaherty’s salary to cover the costs.   DeBone says he was surprised at the attention that idea got.

Tony DeBone: “But it was a way to say ok if we’re spinning this up some resources need to be defined and where it’s coming from, so I did what I did.”

Then two weeks ago, Flaherty held a press conference, and the investigation was over almost as suddenly as it began.

Patrick Flaherty: “I’m pleased to announce a resolution and a settlement of the matters that have been before the grand jury over last couple of weeks…”

Flaherty passed around a letter from Deschutes County Legal Council Mark Pilliod.

Pilliod was the official who responded to the Bend Bulletin’s public records request. He’s also the person who alerted the DA’s office the protected information had been inadvertently disclosed. 

Flaherty told reporters Pilliod accepted responsibility for the release and said Pilliod agreed to pay $100 to cover legal fees.

Patrick Flaherty: “I respect the fact that Mr. Pilliod has acknowledged publicly that the grand jury investigation was appropriate and the records that he disclosed should not have been disclosed.”

Pilliod was not at that press conference. Here’s how he characterizes his statement about Flaherty’s decision to launch a criminal investigation into the records release.

Mark Pilliod: “What I said in my statement that was published is that I understood that this is something that could be investigated.  But I did not say that I agreed with it. And that’s my position.”

The county commission, meanwhile, has taken no action on Flaherty’s salary.

Flaherty says despite the distractions, he’s been able to bring about changes in the way the DA’s office does business.

He says the office has restructured how cases are presented to grand juries.  He’s also made changes to make sure defense attorneys have access to discovery in a timely manner. 

He says he’s also taken steps to ensure that prosecutors don’t overcharge cases. Overcharging is when a prosecutor files a charge that’s not supported by the evidence, in order to leverage a plea bargain to a lesser offense.

Flaherty’s predecessor, Mike Dugan would not go on tape. But in a telephone interview, he said that under his direction, prosecutors charged cases properly. He says Flaherty is trying to deflect criticism.

Flaherty acknowledges the recent attention has been a distraction.

Patrick Flaherty: “Well I’d have to say it’s been somewhat of impediment certainly because I’d rather be able to focus all of my time and have my staff focus all of their time on the job of fighting crime and doing justice.”

The district attorney says he’s confident the next 90 days will go more smoothly than his first 90 days in office.

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