Ex-prosecutor Corey, former colleagues spar in dueling court papers

The News Tribune

March 3, 2009

Another skirmish has erupted in the five-year battle between Barbara Corey and the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The ex-prosecutor, who now works as a defense attorney, says former colleagues James Schacht and John Neeb unfairly disparaged her in recent court filings and have tried to “drive a wedge” between her and two murder defendants she represents.

“I believe that these motions are purely retaliatory for my successful lawsuit against their office,” Corey, who won a wrongful termination case against the county last year, wrote in court pleadings last month. She called the actions “harassment” during a recent court hearing.

Schacht and Neeb dismissed Corey’s claims that their motions were meant to be personal.

“Absolutely not,” said Schacht, who recently asked a judge to remove Corey from one of the murder cases.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Neeb, who contends that Corey hasn’t done enough to represent the speedy-trial rights of the defendant in the other case.

They recently told The News Tribune that they filed their motions to move along the cases, which have languished for years.

Prosecutors have a duty to see that criminal defendants receive their constitutional right to a speedy trial, and Corey hasn’t done enough to help clients Jesie Puapuaga and Aquarius Walker in that regard, Schacht and Neeb said.

The dust-up comes at a time when Pierce County Superior Court is working to reduce a backlog of criminal cases and Corey, according to her attorney, Tom Vertetis, is considering a run for Prosecuting Attorney Gerald Horne’s job.

Horne’s position is up for election next year. He announced recently that he intends to retire this summer and hopes to have deputy prosecutor Mark Lindquist appointed to replace him until the 2010 general election.

It also comes nearly seven months after a King County jury awarded Corey more than $3 million in damages, believing her contention that Horne fired her without good cause in 2004 and later defamed her in remarks to the press. The county has appealed the verdict.

Neeb was a key figure in Corey’s wrongful termination lawsuit. His proposed transfer from a high-profile trial job to a position in the juvenile division got Corey into hot water with Horne and ultimately led to her firing.

Many of the county’s top deputy prosecutors, including Neeb, testified at trial. Schacht was not called as a witness.

Corey said she believes Schacht retaliated against her nonetheless in a motion he filed Feb. 6.

In that pleading, Schacht asked a judge to review Corey’s “capacity” to continue representing Puapuaga, who’s charged with the 2006 killing of a man in Lakewood. Schacht contended that the number of cases Corey is handling might make it “impossible for her to fulfill her obligations” to Puapuaga.

The deputy prosecutor wrote that Corey has more than a dozen trials docketed to begin before the end of March, many of which are more than nine months old.

“By any measure this is a crushing caseload that has the potential to create unsolvable conflicts among her many clients,” Schacht wrote.

He told Superior Court Judge Brian Tollefson during a hearing Feb. 20 that he thought it would be “appropriate to remove Ms. Corey” as defense counsel for Puapuaga.

Corey countered that many Pierce County attorneys, including deputy prosecutors, have caseloads similar to hers.

In court with Puapuaga present, she told Tollefson that her client did not want her removed from the case and that Schacht had no business asking that.

“The prosecutor wants to get me off cases, but my clients don’t,” she argued.

Tollefson dismissed Schacht’s motion without comment.

Also on Feb. 6, Neeb asked the county’s criminal presiding judge to assign Walker’s murder case for trial ahead of another homicide case Corey is handling: State v. Raymond Garland.

Neeb argued that Walker’s trial should go out first even though it’s not as old as the Garland case because Walker has yet to have a trial while Garland has had two, both of which ended in mistrials. Walker was charged in 2006, Garland in 2004.

Neeb, who is prosecuting Walker, further wrote that there might be an appearance that Corey is showing favoritism toward Garland because he and his family have hired her to represent him. The Walker case was assigned to Corey by the local public defender’s office.

“It is disturbing to the state that Ms. Corey has never, even once, asserted Walker’s right to a speedy trial,” Neeb wrote in his motion. “She has consistently maintained that the Garland murder case should have priority over the Walker case. It is time for Aquarius Walker to have his trial. It is time for Ms. Corey to fight for him like she has fought for Garland.”

Corey didn’t much care for the insinuation that she’s given Walker short shrift because he can’t afford to hire an attorney.

In her response motion she said Neeb had committed “prosecutorial misconduct” by interfering in her relationship with Walker.

“This attorney takes her representation of all of her clients very seriously,” she wrote about herself. “She does not distinguish in any way between clients to whose cases she is appointed and clients who have retained her. For Neeb to tell her how to practice criminal defense is offensive.”

Michael Kawamura directs Pierce County’s Department of Assigned Counsel. Among his jobs is parceling out cases to private defense attorneys, including Corey, when his stable of public defenders can’t represent a client.

Kawamura told The News Tribune last month that he is satisfied with Corey’s work. Vertetis, Corey’s attorney, said he and personal injury specialist Jack Connelly are reviewing the matter.

“She’s retained both Jack and I to look at this, and we’re going to investigate,” Vertetis said. “It really looks like they’re trying to pick on her, questioning her competency and her ability to effectively represent her clients.”

Jerry Costello, who until recently served as the county’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said there is no effort under way to pick on Corey or any other defense attorney.

The question about whether the Garland or Walker case goes out first could be decided as soon as Tuesday when they are both docketed for trial.

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