A mistake by the Attorney General's Office could eliminate one of the potential sites for a sex-offender halfway house in King County, complicating plans for an already controversial public facility.
An assistant attorney general was disciplined last month for blowing a filing deadline, helping the city of North Bend win a default court order that eliminated a nearby parcel from the state's short list of potential halfway-house sites.
State attorneys say they will fix the error, and that they are ignoring the adverse legal decision for now.
The mistake was announced yesterday by a homeowners group fighting another halfway-house site near Federal Way, and came a day after Attorney General Christine Gregoire kicked off her campaign for governor. Political consultants say her handling of the office will be a key factor in her campaign.
Gregoire suffered an embarrassing blow in 2000, when state attorneys missed an appeal deadline that cost taxpayers almost $19 million.
Gregoire, who could not be reached yesterday, had a sophisticated, $1.2 million calendar system installed to prevent such blunders.
That system worked, reminding attorney Scott Lockwood to file a notice of appearance in the North Bend lawsuit. But the 14-year state employee ignored the warning, mistakenly believing he had filed the notice, said Bill Williams, Lockwood's boss.
Lockwood was suspended for a week without pay, and his salary was reduced. "It was human error," Williams said. "He's mortified and embarrassed."
But the consequences are minimal, according to Williams. The Attorney General's Office and North Bend struck a deal to ignore the court order unless the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) picked the city from a list of four finalists. If a remote site near North Bend is selected, the attorney general could persuade a judge to overturn the order by showing Lockwood's error was "excusable neglect," Williams said.
But North Bend's attorney, Mike Kenyon, said it won't be so simple, in part because of the blown deadline at the Attorney General's Office in 2000.
"After the state failed on that deadline, the AG herself said, 'It will never happen again, we've put a system in place,' " Kenyon said. "Based on their own statements, they'll have a hard time showing it was excusable."
The error is the latest twist in the state's long and contentious effort to create a release program for graduates of Washington's treatment center for the highest-risk sex offenders.
In 1999, the U.S. District Court cited DSHS for contempt of court in part because the Special Commitment Center lacked a clear release program.
DSHS has tried to build a halfway house since, and, after failing in other areas of the state, is now focused on four sites in King County.
In addition to a state-owned parcel near North Bend, the list includes two residential neighborhoods near Kent and Federal Way and a warehouse in Seattle's SoDo industrial district.
DSHS Secretary Dennis Braddock plans to pick one in September. The agency hopes to have six graduates of the center in the halfway house within two years, each enveloped by one-on-one security and electronic surveillance, at an initial, annual cost of $739,000 per resident.
Yvonne Ward, an attorney for Auburn homeowners, found the error late last week.
The Attorney General's Office asked her not to make the error public, she said, but her group balked, believing the court order was part of a secret deal to prevent North Bend from being picked.
"It's either incompetence or it's politics," Ward said. "We don't care. Either way, it's wrong."
Legal experts said the error was basic lawyering; one lawyer compared it to a plumber going to work without turning off the water.
The Attorney General's Office won't have tremendous difficulty getting the court order overturned because a judge will weigh the importance of the error against that of locating a sex-offender halfway house, said Seattle University law professor Marilyn Berger. But the attorney general's decision to not press for it to be immediately overturned is "weird," she said.
"Maybe DSHS knows they're not going to pick that site, and it's all really quite moot," Berger said.
Williams and Kenyon said the court order will matter only if North Bend is picked. "There's no sense in wasting taxpayer money litigating it," Kenyon said.
Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or email@example.com