Starting Wednesday, Washougal criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney will be represented by a Vancouver-based firm whose principal attorney represented Washougal’s mayor during his recent legal imbroglio.
The city’s decision to hire Jeffery Barrar, doing business as Vancouver Defenders LLC, sparked conflict-of-interest questions from two council members during Washougal’s Jan. 17 council meeting.
However, the council majority pointed to Barrar’s public defender contracts with Vancouver and Clark County, his 10 years as Washougal’s city attorney and Mayor Sean Guard’s lack of input in the hiring process as reasons why they supported the move.
Barrar’s firm signed a contract to provide services for indigent defendants for $3,250 per month plus $350 per jury trial case that will run through the end of 2014, according to Washougal officials. The city will pay the same monthly fee it paid outgoing public defender, Wheeler, Montgomery, Sleight and Boyd. The outgoing firm will keep its pre-existing cases.
Guard entered a guilty plea in December to a charge of second-degree criminal impersonation. The charge stemmed from an incident nearly a year earlier where police said he used emergency lights on his city-owned vehicle to pass slower-moving traffic on I-5 near Kelso. Guard received probation in exchange for his plea.
Kris Carrasco represented Guard in Cowlitz County court, but Barrar was his attorney of record, said Delaura Wirkkala, the county’s court administrator.
Barrar represents clients who pay for services. Vancouver Defenders represents those who cannot afford an attorney, firm officials said.
Councilwoman Jennifer McDaniel criticized the decision to hire Barrar’s firm because it did not appear an impartial one. McDaniel and Councilman Jon Russell were the two council members who voted against hiring Vancouver Defenders.
“We’re only just a few weeks away from Mr. Guard’s court case ending,” McDaniel said.
Councilman Dave Shoemaker said his concerns about a potential conflict of interest were outweighed by the city’s best interests — namely, Barrar’s attorney resources and their agreement to sign for the same amount as their predecessor. “It’s not a perfect situation,” Shoemaker said, adding he viewed as it in the city’s “best interest.”
Barrar’s firm keeps at least two attorneys inside Clark County’s courthouse during business hours, Councilman Paul Greenlee noted. That would be helpful if the state moved forward with talks to require a defense attorney present at all arraignments, he added.
The pluses did not make Barrar’s hire seem any less wrong, Russell said.
“This attorney represented the mayor, and I just felt it was inappropriate,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a conflict of interest so much as the appearance of a conflict.”
Washougal considered four candidates for the public defender contract. They were Todd Pascoe Law Firm; John Lutgens Law Firm; Jeffrey Barrar with Vancouver Defenders; and Elizabeth Arwood, Attorneys at Law, according to city officials.
City Administrator Dave Scott and City Attorney Don English made the hiring decision. Barrar worked in English’s law firm until 2005 or 2006, English said, and also worked as Washougal’s city attorney between 1992 and 2002. Guard did not speak with Barrar about the hire, Scott said.
Scott said he did not view hiring Barrar’s firm as a conflict. English told him Barrar’s previous association with Guard would not “disqualify them,” Scott recalled.
Barrar disagreed with suggestions his firm’s involvement in Guard’s case factored into its hiring in Washougal. He noted his firm handles around 10,000 misdemeanor cases per year, and its representation of Guard was a brief one.
“I’m sorry we put Mayor Guard in that position,” Barrar said. “It’s just what we do. It was a good piece of business. I never even talked to him about it.”
Guard did not return a phone call Tuesday. Scott said the mayor asked him to speak on his behalf.