Breathing Rights, Voting Rights & the King Co. Prosecuting Attorney Race

A poll of 1,000 likely voters in King County was conducted between Sept. 17 and 23, 2007 on voters' preferences in the race for King County Prosecuting Attorney. With an estimated margin of error of 3% voters preferred Bill Sherman, the Democratic candidate by 47% to 35% over Satterberg, the Republican.  18% were undecided. Sherman led 55% to 24% with 22% undecided in Seattle and the north part of the county.  The two candidates were tied in the east and south. (Email correspondence from the Bill Sherman for King County Prosecutor campaign, 10/8/07.)

The Republican candidate for King County Prosecuting Attorney portrays himself as untouched by politics while the Chair of the county GOP declares that the highly-qualified Democrat in the race is so partisan that he's incapable of administering justice. It's a game of partisan hot potato.

This is an understandable PR approach for a party on the decline in Washington state and declared just last week to be in a state of collapse by one of its most prominent national defenders.  The partisan liability is hot.  So throw it at "the other guy" and hope you're not holding it again when the music stops.  (1)  While Dan Satterberg, the Republican candidate, is probably not participating in this game in a calculating way, Bill Sherman, the Democratic candidate, is not participating at all.   He appears comfortable with his political background.  He's right to be.   Party affiliation in a partisan race doesn't diminish a candidate's professionalism.  But it does matter.  Voters deserve the straight story.

A Republican Tradition: Tough on Individual Crime, Friendly to the Powerful
Explore the King County Prosecuting Attorney's (KCPA) and you see ample information on individual crimes and victim assistance.  But you have to open up the annual reports in PDF to learn that the office also deals with corporate crime, abuse of office, and environmental crime.  My search of Seattle Times and Seattle PI articles on KCPA revealed very few reported actions holding corporations or agencies accountable. (2)    Search Dan Satterburg's campaign page, and you find the same focus on individual crime.  Maleng and Satterberg are from a law-and-order culture that emphasizes individual culpability.   Their version is kinder and gentler than some -- including active support for drug court and easier restoration of driver's licenses for the poor, for example.  But it is a less comprehensive approach than what we see proposed by Bill Sherman, whose campaign site proposes addressing a broad range of crime.  And it is less comprehensive than what we see in the district attorney sites for other major counties -- such as the Los Angeles County, CA, which has separate pages for public corruption, including campaign and election violations, and environmental crimes. KCPA's priority of punishing individuals while requiring less accountability for the powerful has has real-life impact on the people who live in this county. Read on for discussion on specific examples,

Follow the links in citations 3-7, below, for media reports on this incident.

In 1991, an anonymous phone call tipped off inspectors with Labor and Industries that ventilation airflow containing asbestos fibers from a remodeling project at Valley Medical Center in Renton had been directed into the hospital maternity ward for 5 or 6 days. One of the construction workers, who was certified for asbestos removal had alerted supervisors that pipes being removed appeared to have asbestos covering.  But no action was taken -- except that he was fired the next day. Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency (PSAPCA) investigated the case and gave its findings to the King County prosecutor (KCPA), which filed filed seven criminal misdemeanor charges against responsible parties, including Nuprecon, Inc. a Redmond Demolition company.  James Nolan, director of the PSAPCA's compliance division, noted that it was unusual to have evidence of criminal violations of the Clean Air Act. But he said that, in this case, employees of Nuprecon and the general contractor in the renovation knew they were breaking the law.

The Industry is Infuriated.  The Contractor is "Insulted".  The Charges are Dropped
KCPA's fines and criminal charges infuriated the construction industry. Developers and contractors mobilized, flooding the KCPA office with letters, asking the prosecutor to go easy on Nuprecon.  The tactic worked. KPCA dropped the charges. Dan Satterberg explained to the press that the prosecutor could not prove the firms' workers knew asbestos insulation existed.

But Lynn Prunhuber, the KCPA deputy in charge of the case said there was "no doubt" that Nuprecon knew about the asbestos.  "I'm a conservative prosecutor, Prunhuber said, I felt confident of my ability to prove the case and, especially, that Nuprecon knew that there was asbestos on the site." (4)  PSAPCA's general counsel, Laurie Halvorson, also publicly disagreed with KCPA's decision to drop the case.

John Hennessey, Nuprecon's president, had a different take.  He declared that he was "insulted" and would refuse bargain with PSAPC.  We don't know how the mothers and babies who breathed in that asbestos-containing air felt about the situation - or if they were even informed of their exposure.

This was the first case of criminal charges that KCPA brought under the federal Clean Air Act.

Who holds prosecutors accountable for their decisions?   Court decisions are available for the public to examine, allowing judges to be held personally accountable. Washington's Sentencing Guidelines Commission looks at the equity of sentencing on a state-wide basis.  Law makers are scrutinized closely by the public and all legislative records are open for examination.  Law enforcement is required to justify its decisions in regard to individual accused criminals. But the public has no access to the decision-making process of prosecutors.  We can see the one case in King County where charges were brought -- and suspiciously dropped -- under the Clean Air Act.  We can't see how many charges were never brought.

I spent the good part of a day searching Seattle-area newspaper archives through the Proquest database (available online to King County Library System patrons).  Based on what I found, I believe that the KCPA office has prosecuted very few -- if any -- cases of major fraud committed by the powerful.  Violators of important environmental laws would be held accountable if Bill Sherman were elected.



Americans are twice as likely to be hit by lightning than to have their vote canceled out by a fraudulently cast ballot. Still, there's a well-funded, well-organized campaign underway to make Americans believe that voter fraud is a serious problem.  Allegations of voter fraud, however baseless, are used by partisans to build public support for laws and regulations that make it more difficult for minorities and low-income voters to cast their ballots. Voter Fraud?, Michael Slater, National Voter, League of Women Voters, 10/07

"One of the reasons that we were competitive in the governor's election is due to our grassroots hard work and the siphoning off of traditional Democrat votes in King and Pierce Counties." -- Rose Strong, member of the Advisory Board of the King County Republican Party.  Sometimes Vote Suppression is as Important as Vote Getting", Washblog, 7/29/07

In November, 2005, Lori Sotelo, Vice Chair of the King County GOP signed 1,944 challenges to the registrations of individual voters, claiming that they did not live at the address listed on their registrations. These challenges were focused in high-Democratic voting areas of the county.

Ms. Sotelo's challenges were characterized by three elements which, on their face, were illegal:

  1. Washington law requires that any challenge to a voter's registration include the actual address at which the challenged voter is said to reside.  Ms. Sotelo did not do this.
  2. On each challenge, Ms. Sotelo signed a statement declaring "under penalty of perjury" that she had "personal knowledge and belief that this person is not qualified to vote, or does not reside at the address given."  She testified later that she did not have this personal knowledge.  The challenges were based on data mining of the voter registration file to identify locations that she and her staff believed could not be residences.  These included locations, such as Mailboxes, etc. and storage units where otherwise homeless voters actually did live.
  3. Ms. Sotelo altered the official state voter registration challenge form because the form did not include a cause that justified her challenge.  She creatively added a new checkbox -- and a new cause for challenge.  And that was the one she checked off for each challenge.

These challenges occurred in an environment of voter intimidation in Washington State.  We get a glimpse of the willfulness with which the county GOP pursued this intimidation by reading about Rose Strong, currently a member of the Advisory Board of the King County Republican Party -- along with Lori Sotelo.  She made the observation quoted at the beginning of this section that the "siphoning off of traditional Democrat votes in King and Pierce Counties" were part of what made the 2004 governor's race competitive.  Ms. Rose, trained by the GOP to challenge voters, also maintains that voter fraud usually occurs in poor minority communities.Almost all of Sotelo's challenges to King County voters in 2005 were dismissed -- but not without inconveniencing many of the challenged voters who had to come forward to explain the financial, health, and personal safety reasons that led them to live in unusual places or to attempt to conceal where they lived.

The evidence is strong, clear and apparent that Ms. Sotelo, on behalf of the King County GOP, committed perjury nearly 2,000 times and that she challenged citizens on one of their most sacred democratic rights -- without following the law designed to protect those rights.  There were many calls for Maleng's office to investigate.  King County Executive Ron Sims, for example, issued a public call for the KCPA to initiate formal investigation of the erroneous voter registration challenges.  But not only did the KCPA refuse to investigate, Norm Maleng and Dan Satterberg applied pressure to uphold the legally faulty challenges and institute new investigations into the behavior of individual voters, people with little power -- while ignoring the voter suppression efforts of the GOP, an organization with great power.

Dan Satterberg was in the middle of this.  He happened to be one of the three members of the Canvassing Board that reviewed the voter challenges.  Over and over again, he was outvoted 2-1 on his determination to revoke voter registrations.   Both he and Maleng disputed the cause that the board's other two members gave for rejecting most challenges: that state law requires challengers to provide voters' actual addresses.  They wanted to be tougher on the voter and go easier on the GOP.  A 12/05 Seattle PI editorial had this observation: "Maleng is a respected public official, but he is a partisan politician. The Republican Party has tried to criminalize election issues by alleging that nearly 2,000 voters violated the law by registering at commercial mail centers and mini-storage units....  Maleng has actually turned the partisan volume not down, but up."

The contrast between the Maleng/Satterberg foot-dragging on protecting the rights of voter from Democratic areas -- and  their recent (and justifiable) alacrity in investigating the fraud committed by ACORN employees who made up bogus voter registrations because they were too lazy to do their job, is striking.

Bill Sherman, speaking at a meeting of the 47th District Democrats that I attended indicated that he would have supported an investigation of the Sotelo challenges.

As of 2006, about 5.9% of King County's population is African American.  And yet, 67% of the people serving life in prison in King County under the 3-strikes law are African-American. (8)

The causes for tragic disparities such as this are complex and can't be blamed solely on prosecutors.  But it is probable that decisions made in the King County Prosecutor's Office during Satterberg's long tenure have contributed to the disparity in King County.  It is cause for concern that this office's narrow focus on individual crime may be impeding progress on establishing a more just record.

It is important to hold wrongdoers accountable -- whether they are individuals or powerful organizations.  Rapists and drugdealers may lack power once they are imprisoned -- but certainly they wield unjust power over their victims.  The Maleng-Satterberg office is celebrated both for being tough on crime and for having a reasonable approach toward punishment: supporting drug court instead of prison for many drug offenses -- and for easier restoration of drivers licenses after suspension, for example.  This legacy deserves recognition.  

That does not lessen the responsibility of voters to look at the larger issues surrounding how King County prosecutes justice.  The KCPA has a multi-decades'-long law-and-order focus -- that prioritizes accountability for the most powerless in society -- while allowing the most powerful to operate without the same accountability.

This focus is not only traditional for Republicans -- but in the case of Satterberg's mentor, Norm Maleng, can be shown to have been used for partisan advantage.  A 1992 A Seattle Times article, commenting on Maleng's run for state Attorney General criticized him for misleading with  law-and-order rhetoric and playing to public safety fears.  The state attorney general office, the writer noted, represents the state in everything it does, "from investigating alleged abuse and neglect of children to running colleges and enforcing environmental regulations." Maleng, the author said, was over-emphasizing the criminal prosecution angle for political gain.  (9)

Achieving a more just Justice in King County will require building on Maleng's and Satterberg's work to attend to what they appear to have overlooked -- the need for the powerful to be held accountable.  Individual culpability  belongs within a broader context of organizational, corporate, government, and societal responsibility.  Bill Sherman shows every indication of understanding that.  We are at a key moment for bringing this particular brand of wisdom to the office of the King County Prosecuting Attorney.


  1. I find this hesitancy among Republicans to acknowledge their political alliance to be especially poignant in this case, considering that the office of King County Prosecuting Attorney has been a notable exception to the trend of Republican losses in Washington state, having remained in Republican hands, essentially, since the 1940s.

    This becomes even more interesting in light of Maleng's role in helping to rehabilitate the Republican party in Washington state as prosecutor. Ironically, Maleng's first and only criminal trial as a lawyer was when he served as the key deputy prosecutor in a 1973 payoff conspiracy case against several dozen policemen and politicians - including his predecessor, Charles O. Carroll.  Carroll had been one of the most influential figures in the county. "For 18 years he had run the prosecutor's office as the main cog in a political machine that encompassed police officers, city and county bureaucrats and even judges and ran on patronage..."

  2. Last year I spent several weeks making phone calls and visits and interviewing people for a Washblog story on what I saw as a probable environmental crime that took place in King County.  During this process, I asked several knowledgeable people what could be done about a $2 million profit made on an apparent illegal filling of a salmon-bearing creek in Auburn.  Maybe I didn't listen well enough, but I ended up with the impression that no agency could investigate matters like this. Now I see that the KCPA office would have been the one to investigate: Joseph Schuler's King County Farm: Laws are Not Enough to Protect it, Washblog, 11/30/06.