The Committee to Recall Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, endorsed by the Pierce County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, is facing an increasingly steep mountain to gather enough signatures to even put a recall vote on the ballot.
The recall committee received the green light to gather signatures to put a recall of Lindquist on the April ballot, after it filed a roster of allegations that included abuse of power, malfeasance and violation of the oath of office. Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay Roof determined in August there was enough legal cause in the petition to allow the campaign to move forward. The petition mentioned 12 allegations, and Roof rejected all but one of them. But it was enough to trigger a signature-gathering effort.
Recall Committee President Cheryl Iseberg reports the effort has gathered, after more than four months of work, just over a third of the signatures needed toward the goal of the 38,642 signatures needed to put the recall on a ballot. Signatures are due Feb. 22. The signature threshold is set by state law as 25 percent of the people who voted in the race that elected the official in the first place.
The recall effort raised $43,000 and spent $19,000. It has about $40,000 in liabilities that range for legal bills and outstanding loans, according to a State Public Disclosure Commission records in mid December. About $17,000 of the loans to the campaign were from Iseberg herself to keep the heart beating in the recall campaign.
“I knew I was willing to do some amount (of personal donations to the campaign she oversees), but I didn’t know what that amount would be,” Iseberg said. “I anticipate that I will be paying for this. Unfortunately, that is what we have found is the price of justice in Pierce County.”
Iseberg, a self-described political novice and healthcare technology consultant, said she believed that she could file the actual recall paperwork, and Lindquist critics would then donate in droves to fund the $150,000 campaign to remove him from office.
That hasn’t happened.
Iseberg blames the lack of donations on the fear of retaliation by Lindquist and his supporters, since donor names are public documents.
“We really thought the attorneys in the ‘confederacy of dunces’ would stand behind us,” she said. “But they are still afraid. I get that. I put a big target on my back. It’s real.”
The “confederacy” is a roster of about two dozen attorneys who criticized his office in sworn declarations. A whistleblower lawsuit claims Lindquist told his deputy prosecutors to not offer generous plea deals to defendants who hired members of the “confederacy” to defend them in court. Lindquist denies the allegation, but admits to making the “dunces” comment, albeit in passing.
Some high-profile attorneys have stepped forward and donated to the recall campaign, most notably famed defense attorney Monte Hester, who has donated $2,000, according to PDC filings. Lindquist’s rival during the 2009 campaign, former deputy prosecutor Bertha Fitzer, donated $1,000.
By December, the recall committee was a month behind with filing the required PDC expenditure reports, while still reporting campaign forms that largely show donations of only a few hundred dollars. The lack of filing of expenditure reports prompted PDC campaign watchers to shepherd the recall committee through the process so that it can become compliant with state campaign laws.
“It looks like they are a little behind,” PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said when questioned about the lack of up-to-date expenditure reports for the recall committee. “They have been operating for six months, so I think they should be past the learning curve at this point.”
PDC staffers have since contacted the recall committee about the lack of expenditure reports. Since the disclosure system is largely driven by campaign complaints, staffers don’t monitor campaign financial report filings until such irregularities come to light. They then typically contact campaigns to solve the issue – either technical issues with the online filing system or misunderstandings about deadlines – without issuing penalties for not filing the required paperwork, Anderson said. But those could come later if the PDC determines campaign rules were intentionally violated.
The seeming lack of fundraising has limited the committee’s ability to pay for professional signature gatherers. The committee also changed who managed those paid signature gatherers early in the process.
Tacoma activist Sherry Bockwinkel had coordinated those efforts, but has since left.
“I have nothing bad to say about Sherry Bockwinkel,” Iseberg said. “I don’t hold anything against her. I think she put forth her best effort. I think she did the best she could.”
The signatures just weren’t coming in fast enough, prompting the campaign to shift gears. The campaign, Iseberg said, now has the target of gaining 11,000 signatures through volunteer efforts and 45,000 through the use of paid workers.
Mario Montague had reportedly taken over from Bockwinkel. Montague would not comment. He has since left the campaign as well. Mid-December campaign filings showed no records of payment to him from the recall committee, seemingly giving credence to the perception that the recall effort is having troubles.
That said, Iseberg’s projected total would bring about 56,000 signatures, which is over the 39,000 requirement. But the general rule of thumb in such matters is that only about 70 percent of the signatures pass the validation requirements. Signatures are deemed invalid by the Pierce County Auditor’s Election Department if signers are not found to be registered voters or the signatures on the petition don’t match the ones on file, for example. All signatures are inspected, a process that takes about two weeks. Only one signature counts if someone signs more than once.
To date however, the recall effort hasn’t submitted any signatures for validation, according to the Elections Department of the Pierce County Auditor’s Office.
Campaigns routinely submit signatures during the collection process as a way to determine validation rates at particular signature-gathering locations and provide for a running tally of qualified signatures.
Jerry Gibbs was behind the last successful petition effort in Pierce County. He mounted a campaign to ask voters to kill the county’s plan to build a Pierce County General Services Building at the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital. Voters soundly defeated the county’s efforts. The campaign had a validation rate of 73 percent and spent about $90,000 of which about $1,500 came from Gibbs himself.
“I think I have about 10 bucks in the bank,” he said.
Gibbs said recall backers approached him the same day the judge allowed the start of signature gathering. He has since provided advice on the petition process to both the recall committee and Lindquist’s supporters. He remains neutral on the matter.
“I don’t really have a big position one way or the other,” Gibbs said. “I don’t have a dog in this fight.”
He admitted as a matter of disclosure, however, that Lindquist prosecuted a man who stole Gibbs’ identity in 2009, when no one else would take the case. That fact might seem like Gibbs would be a Lindquist supporter, but Gibbs also pointed out Lindquist sued him – at the direction of County Executive Pat McCarthy – in an effort to stop the signature gathering against the General Services Building plans from proceeding.
Gibbs said he simply champions the responsible spending by government agencies and the right of voter-initiated ballot measures, he said, be they recalls, initiatives or referenda. So Gibbs will give advice to either side of an issue. That advice includes such bits as any campaign simply can’t gather enough signatures without paying for them; farmers markets and festivals are great locations to get signatures, while standing outside retail locations might yield signatures, they are often invalidate because they are illegible or from people who aren’t registered voters.
Another bit of Gibbs’ advice was that the fear of retaliation -- either real or imaginary -- against donors and petition signers is very real in Pierce County – something the Lindquist recall campaign has long claimed as a reason for the lack of donations.
“If they are saying that, I think they are spot on, because I experienced that,” Gibbs said. He noted that his petition staff routinely talked to people who said they supported his petition but were unwilling to sign it or donate money simply because those records are public and could target them for retaliation.
With the lack of outdoor festivals, the cold weather, and the apparent lack of an army of paid signature gatherers, he said, the recall committee likely has an almost impossible task to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
“During the winter months, people are running back and forth from their cars because of the weather,” Gibbs said. “I just don’t see, logistically, how they can get it done.”
Compounding the local weather troubles and the seemingly lack of donations is the fact that paid signature gatherers work around the nation and have largely moved on to warmer states rather than battle the Puget Sound drizzle.
“You aren’t going to get people from Florida or California to come up here to work in the rain,” Gibbs said.
One of those local petition gatherers is Will Baker, a 20-year veteran of activism in local politics who now works as a paid signature gatherer while not gadflying local governments with claims of corruption and abuse of power.
He gathered signatures for Gibbs’ referendum campaign, for example. He said he has also gathered signatures for Lindquist’s recall effort, although he has yet to turn any of them into the committee because of a dispute about how much he should be paid for them. He had no signed contract with the recall committee to gather signatures. He gathered signatures he then hoped to sell to the recall campaign based on verbal agreements.
It’s called “wild catting” in the election industry.
See, professional signature gatherers are essentially contract laborers who are paid between $1 and $4 per signature, he said, a rate confirmed by industry insiders. The rate often goes up, through the economic principles of supply and demand. The price goes up as a campaign comes closer to the required threshold. A signature gathered in August, for example, might bring in $1.50. One gained in the winter might go up to $2.50. One submitted as a campaign reaches its deadline could run $4. One way paid gatherers further maximize their incomes is to handle several petitions at the same time, since a person who stops to give one petition signature is likely to sign others, he said. Pro petitioners who work eight hours a day and average just 10 signatures an hour can make $500 a day if they handle two or three petitions at a time and reach set quotas that bump them up to higher per-signature rates. That makes the economics of the recall effort gathering enough signatures more costly as the deadline nears.
“They can do it, but it is going to get more expensive,” Baker said. “This is an army of lawyers behind this thing, so they have the money. They just have to open their pockets.”
For her part, Bockwinkel said she left the recall-Lindquist effort to concentrate on a campaign to remove money from politics and to work on the local effort to stop a methanol plant from being built on Tacoma’s tideflats. She painted a picture of the anti-Lindquist camp as a collection of political novices who wanted to focus more on sign waving and letter writing than fundraising.
“You can’t get on the ballot without money,” she said. “This guy is not going to resign because you send him a letter. (The recall campaign) was totally unrealistic from the get go.”
Political campaigns, especially citizen-driven efforts, need large donations early in the effort to show future donors the effort can succeed, she said. The recall campaign meetings had moneyed attendees, she said, but they seemed more interested in organizing and strategizing rather than writing donation checks. Recall campaigns are particularly tough because they have to form, raise lots of money and gather thousands of signatures just to get a recall on the ballot. They then have to raise even more money to fund a campaign in hopes of swaying voters in an even shorter time.
“There are only 180 days in a petition drive; there are no days off,” Bockwinkel said, noting that most petition drives are coordinated by novices who don’t know the time and dollar demands they require. The Lindquist recall effort is fairly typical in that regard. “Every campaign is a novice campaign.”
That’s a fact not lost by Lindquist supporters, his campaign advisor Alex Hays said.
Lindquist’s 2018 reelection campaign has raised $18,000 and spent just $7,000, with the election still three years away. His supporters haven’t even mounted an anti-recall campaign. Lindquist had faced a recall in 2011 that failed on legal grounds when it reached the state Supreme Court, after all, and this drive won’t succeed either, they believe. Supporters are confident this recent effort won’t gain enough signatures to even qualify, let alone then turn around and mount a campaign to sway voters to remove him from office, Hays said.
“If we thought they were going to qualify, we would be setting up an anti-recall effort,” he said. “We have a 2018 campaign.”
Some back story
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist has had a storied life. The current cloud of troubles that include lawsuits, ethical investigations and another recall effort to remove him from office are just the latest chapters in his storybook life.
Claims for damages involving Lindquist and his office total some $10 million stemming from claims handled by the same attorney, Joan Mell. And the numbers are growing, along with the legal bills taxpayers are paying. The allegations and cross allegations would make for a real page-turner novel. Lindquist might even write it one day or include them in a reality show he is in talks to create. He already has five crime novels that pull from real life cases after all. This will be one more.
“That is a safe bet,” Lindquist said. “I would put money on that.”
Before the presses start on that book, however, he has quite a bit of legal troubles to face, including streams of legal filings involving allegations that he is politicizing the office, retaliating against critics and violating the public trust followed by rebuttals and counter claims. Criticism is nothing new for Lindquist, who is unrepentant about his leadership style.
“The only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing,” Lindquist said, quoting the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Mark Evans Lindquist was born and raised in Seattle. He draws his middle name from his mother, a member of the Evans family tree that includes three-term governor Dan J. Evans. Lindquist attended public schools before going to the University of Washington and the University of Southern California. He spent the 1980s as a novelist and screenwriter before returning to the Pacific Northwest to start his career in law at Seattle University Law School, which was in Tacoma at the time. He interned with the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office under John Ladenburg and became a deputy prosecutor in 1995.
He met his wife Chelsea in 2007 and moved into a house by Tacoma’s iconic burger joint, Frisco Freeze, where they still live with their 5-year-old daughter, Sloan. Lindquist was appointed by a bipartisan and unanimous vote of the County Council to run the office in 2009. He won election in 2010 and ran unopposed in 2014.
“I’m tough against all crimes,” he said, noting as proof that his office files two times as many felony charges as King County does, per capita. “Pierce County has tough challenges, and we need a tough prosecutor.”
It’s that volume of cases and his office’s aggressive prosecution, Lindquist said, that also leads to the noted fact that more than half of the cases to be overturned for prosecutorial misconduct since 2012 in Washington involve cases prosecuted by his office.
“We aren’t afraid of going to trial on close cases,” he said, adding that the broad label of “prosecutorial misconduct” is a misnomer. A prosecutor’s good-faith tactic during a trial can be allowed by a presiding judge, he said. Another judge could then tag the same tactic as prosecutorial misconduct rather than judicial misconduct made by the presiding judge.
The Dalsing Case
A tree rooted in a sex-crime case has branched into his current troubles. The six-year saga in the Dalsing case has sparked a swirl of claims, whistleblower allegations, cross claims and appeals that will likely take years and millions of taxpayer dollars to meander through the legal system, with media outlets chronicling the journey.
Lynn Dalsing was charged with child rape in 2010. Her sex offender husband and another man were also charged, and later convicted of raping Dalsing’s daughter and two of her friends. Dalsing had spent months in jail. Charges against Dalsing were later dropped. She then sued Pierce County for malicious prosecution. New charges were filed against her in 2014. A judge later dismissed those charges on the grounds that they were a matter of prosecutorial vindictiveness and only filed because Dalsing had sued for damages.
The deciding judge noted that the investigation into Dalsing spanned almost three years, stating that Lindquist’s office “was not interested in this information until after the civil lawsuit was filed by the defendant against Pierce County.”
Lindquist’s office filed – then withdrew -- an appeal against that ruling saying an appeal would be traumatic to the victim, who is now living with family in Texas.
The complicated case now includes not only Dalsing’s lawsuit, but claims of retaliation against a handful of Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies who were involved in the investigation, whistleblower complaints by members of Lindquist’s office and ethic probes by the Washington State Bar Association. A Pierce County Ethics Commission investigation involving free legal advice Lindquist personally received from a lawyer at Keating, Bucklin and McCormack. That could be a violation of the county’s rules on officials receiving gifts worth more than $25. But that issue gets even more murky because his office then hired the firm, at taxpayer expense, to represent the county in the same dispute. The firm had never done work for the county. That taxpayer-funded work tops $500,000 at last count. The county has spent another $300,000 on the issue as well. The pro bono work, something that is routine in legal circles, had been reviewed by the county’s Civil Division, so he is confident they made the right decision and says the roster of allegations are political theater that doesn’t distract him.
“We live in a small community,” he said of the 800,000 residents of Pierce County. “I think they can figure out what is going on. … I stay focused on public safety and public service. … I stay focused on protecting the citizens of the county,” he said. “Lawsuits are filed against the county for any number of reasons, one of them is political.”
He said he continues to talk about the law and the duties of his office at public meetings, community gatherings on top of running an aggressive staff of attorneys. Critics have called him arrogant and void of any ability to accept criticism or dissension. Confronted with what others have said about him, Lindquist stayed on message.
“No one is talking about the recall,” he said of people he meets at community forums. “People care about the safety of their children, the safety of their homes and the safety of their neighborhoods. That’s what matters. I stay focused on protecting the citizens of Pierce County and work to make sure the county will always be safe.”
As far as member of his own staff filing complaint against him, he has no regrets about how he runs his office. He points out that he changed from a seniority-based promotion system to one based on performance. That change, he said, made some staffers aggressive and high achievers, while making others -- less aggressive prosecutors -- resentful.
“Some people call that politics,” he said. “I call that public service. I have little patience for laziness and mediocrity. I lead an office that is high achieving and aggressive. Both of those qualities will upset people, and that’s ok. We play hard, but we play by the rules.”
Weave of connections
“The best case scenario would be for Mark to just go,” said Joan Mell, an attorney representing most of the clients alleging misdoings and acts of retaliation by Lindquist and his office, including a $6.5 million claim filed by Deputy Glenda Nissen and a $3.6 million claim filed against the county by retired Deputy Mike Ames. Mell donated $120 to the recall campaign and did some legal work for Iseberg in 2010 to help set up Finn’s Fight, a nonprofit to raise money to assist owners of Labrador Retrievers with Canine Epilepsy. “There is no cap on his expenses as long as he is in charge.”
Mell also did some legal work for Lindquist’s predecessor Gerry Horne in the mid-2000s that involved allegations that Horne fired deputy prosecutor Barbara Corey when he learned she was considering a run for his office. Corey won $3 million in a jury trial in 2008. Horne left the office the following year, prompting Lindquist’s appointment. Mell is now representing clients who claim Lindquist retaliates against his critics. She said she has talked to Horne about the swirl of legal issues surrounding Lindquist. She said Horne feels Lindquist is tarnishing the office.
When contacted for an interview, Horne was short and polite.
“I would just rather stay out of it at this point,” he said. “But whatever Joan told you is probably true.”
Horne’s predecessor, Ladenburg, hired Lindquist out of law school. He wouldn’t comment much about Lindquist either other than to say that he auctioned off an item at one of Lindquist’s election campaign events last year.
“Right now, I am the Interim Court Administrator and cannot get involved in political fights,” he wrote in an email. “Also, the governor has appointed me to the Executive Ethics Commission, and I take office next month to serve two years there. It is possible that some the problems that Mark is involved in could end up there.”
Ladenburg, who left the prosecutor’s office to serve as county executive and is now in private practice. He is also the attorney for the Pierce County Newspaper Group, publisher of the Tacoma Weekly.
In a further twist in an already complex tale of swerves and side stories, Corey’s attorney against Horne was John “Jack” Connelly. Connelly and Lindquist are friends. Lindquist lists him as a member of Pierce County’s top-tier attorneys who support him, as opposed to the list of “lower-tier” attorneys who don’t.
“Mark is a friend, and he is going through tough times right now,” Connelly said. “He has been committed to Pierce County for years, and he takes his job very seriously.”
He and Lindquist haven’t talked much about the current state of affairs, he said.
“It’s not my job to jump in and give advice,” Connelly said.
He, however, offered his own armchair quarterbacking of the situation by noting the extensive media coverage about the allegations, hearings, rulings and appeals hasn’t stopped for months. It now seems to have caused yet more allegations to arise to what Connelly characterized as an “unprecedented” level.
“That’s of concern,” he said. “There has been a bit of piling on. People believe where there is smoke, there is fire.”
That said, Connelly isn’t ready to give Lindquist a full pass on the allegations against him and his office.
“None of us know what the full truth really is,” he said. “These things have to work themselves through, so the truth comes out.”
“It is longer than a Harry Potter novel and less based in reality,” Lindquist said of complaint against him that totals some 1,000 pages he says are filled with speculations and theories rather than facts and evidence.
“He (Lindquist) pissed off somebody, and I don’t know who it is,” Gibbs said. “When you run unopposed, you get sloppy, and I think he got sloppy.”
“I’m the one who autographed that sign – as a joke. I was just joking,” said Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, regarding a recall campaign sign that petition volunteers waved outside of a Lindquist appearance at Kings Books earlier this year. Troyer asked for a recall sign. They gave him one. “They had no idea what I was going to do with it,” he said, noting that he signed Lindquist’s name himself and returned it to the protesters as a joke. The recall effort, however, then auctioned the sign off for more than $1,000, listing Lindquist as a high-dollar donor to his own recall effort. That prompted a PDC investigation.
“My opponents fabricated that claim in 2010. That shows you how low they are willing to go,” Lindquist said, concerning an allegation that he once said the murders of four Lakewood Police Department officers: Mark Renninger, Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards on Nov. 29, 2009, was worth $100,000 of publicity for his campaign because of the media attention the deaths created.
“I may choose to turn over my personal and communications, but the government doesn’t have the right to that personal and political communication. Everyone has the right to their personal and political communications,” Lindquist said, noting that privacy holds true even if those communications are between him and members of his staff, saying that people don’t give up their right of privacy because they chose public service careers. “We turned over everything we possessed that was related to work. We have gone above and beyond what was required… At what point do you say, ‘No. You don’t get these communications between my wife and I about our babysitter.’”
“Is he (Lindquist) crooked? Yeah. Should he be recalled? Yeah,” Baker said. “But I’m not blind to history. They are all black hats. There is nothing new here.”
“Adversity is a blessing,” Lindquist said. “My supporters have been galvanized by this and have become wiser and stronger.”
The cases for and against Lindquist and his office are complex, nuanced and often intertwined. What are your thoughts? Go to TACOMAWEEKLY to take a quick poll about the issue.