Judge: Attorney coached witnesses in racial discrimination case

Portland lawyer plans to appeal after federal judge finds him in civil contempt in case involving city of Vancouver

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A prominent attorney has been found in civil contempt by a federal judge for coaching his witnesses on the stand during a federal trial involving the city of Vancouver.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ordered a mistrial and found Portland attorney Thomas Boothe in civil contempt following the June trial, where a former city employee accused the city of Vancouver of racial discrimination. Boothe represented the ex-employee, Rolando Hernandez.

Leighton gave his decision during a hearing on the contempt charges on Oct. 12.

As a result of the judge’s decision, the city is seeking about $200,000 from Boothe to offset attorney fees. Once he receives paperwork outlining attorney fees, the judge will make a written decision on how much Boothe will be fined.

Reached by telephone, Boothe deferred comment to his appellate attorney, Phil Talmadge of Tukwila. Talmadge said his client adamantly denies the contempt allegations and plans to appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Talmadge said the contempt finding came after a “series of bad blood between the city of Vancouver and Tom.” And the charges and request for fees is an attempt to “kill the messenger,” he said.

“We don’t think the finding of civil contempt was appropriate,” Talmadge said, noting the witnesses denied that Boothe coached them.

A city mechanic from 1995 to 1999, Hernandez sued the city for $2.5 million, alleging racial discrimination based on disparate treatment, retaliation and a hostile work environment. The case went to trial on June 11 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

On the fourth day of trial, two jurors notified the judge that they saw Boothe apparently giving cues to witnesses during cross-examination. The jurors said Boothe would shake his head, nod and mouth answers when each witness was asked a question, and they followed his promptings, according to court documents.

The judge also heard evidence that Boothe may have intimidated a witness, a Vancouver city official, and also may have forged a court document that was presented as evidence at trial.

Hernandez’s case against the city remains open. It has stalled since he filed the lawsuit in 2004. The District Court originally threw the case out in 2006. Following appeals, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in May 2008 and called for a jury trial.

Hernandez worked for the city’s operations center, and when he was promoted to work in the fire department’s shop as an emergency equipment mechanic, his suit alleges, he received the “cold shoulder” from coworkers. He also alleged he was given more menial tasks than his peers and had his tools and at least one vehicle he worked on sabotaged.

Hernandez was placed on leave in 2004 after an altercation with another employee in a parking lot, and eventually demoted. He left the city in 2007.

Boothe, a lawyer for 33 years, has handled several high-profile cases in Clark County, mostly civil suits involving public agencies.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.