COEUR d'ALENE - Defense attorneys are rankled by the Kootenai County Prosecutor's Office contracting the chief deputy prosecutor's wife to work on a case.
But their worries are more about pay rate than nepotism.
Some contend that the prosecutor's office is providing attorney Betsy Black, a former county prosecutor and wife of Chief Deputy Prosecutor Barry Black, significantly higher compensation than what county-contracted defense attorneys receive.
"The disparity of what they're willing to pay someone to come back and work on a particular case to prosecute, versus what they're paying the rest of us for our defense is outrageous," said defense attorney Michael Palmer.
Betsy, who left the prosecutor's office in 2009 to work in private practice, was contracted by the county in March 2010 to work on the prosecution of Amber and Jeremy Clark, foster parents indicted for injuring 2-year-old Karina Moore who later died of head injuries.
Betsy's contract was renewed in October.
Prosecuting Attorney Barry McHugh said Betsy, who was involved in a review of the Clarks' case up until she left, had crucial knowledge of the matter.
"There wasn't anybody at the time that she left who had been working on the case as closely as she had," McHugh said of why Betsy was contracted. "She had the opportunity to observe the witnesses and evaluate their credibility, their ability to testify in order to pursue the prosecution."
Under Betsy's contract, effective until Sept. 30, 2012, she will earn $100 an hour, not to exceed $25,000.
That's what irks Palmer, who contracts as a public defender for the county and is also president of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Palmer pointed out that the county contracts with private defense attorneys for a flat monthly fee of $3,250 a month, which comes out to $35 an hour.
County records confirm the contracted five defense attorneys earn between $1,083 and $3,250 a month, depending on how they share their caseloads.
"I say good for (Betsy) with what she's worked out, but in the bigger scheme of things, that's just grossly unfair to do that to the defense side," Palmer said.
He noted that Betsy is working on one case, while he and other public defenders are sometimes dealing with 50 indigent cases or more at a time for the county.
"We're considering kicking it," Palmer said of his office's contract with the county. "To see this come out (Betsy's compensation), it's vexing."
Jed Nixon, defense attorney with a "half contract" with the county, said he is paid $1,625 a month to handle about 50 cases, many concerning felonies and child protection.
"I enjoy doing the work, and helping people. That's why defense attorneys do what we do," Nixon said.
But it is still upsetting, Nixon said, to see the county seek out a prosecutor with specialized knowledge and give such ample compensation for one case.
"It seems as though the commissioners are certainly putting more resources toward the prosecutor's side," he said.
The county's contract with Betsy is an unnecessary expense, said Coeur d'Alene defense attorney Suzanna Graham.
The attorneys in the prosecutor's office are capable of prosecuting the Clarks, Graham said.
"When you look at the economy in this day and age, everybody has budget cuts," she said. "So why is Barry McHugh, an elected official, hiring outside of his attorneys?"
John Adams, the county's chief public defender, argued that provisions in Betsy's contract, like office space at the county, are characteristic of full employment, not an independent contract.
"She's got an office, secretary, computer, access to Westlaw, which is a huge cost for anybody," Adams said. "To get them free, that on top of $100 an hour, those are badges of employment."
When asked why the 14 criminal attorneys in the prosecutor's office weren't chosen to handle the Clarks' case instead of Betsy, McHugh said the case is complex, and Betsy had unique first-hand knowledge.
"The ability to utilize that knowledge was important as we went forward," McHugh said. "It was very, very valuable to have her input."
Betsy's contract is within McHugh's approved budget provided by the county commissioners, he added.
He pointed out that Betsy's compensation is far less than what she charges for her private practice. And when the prosecutor's office contracts on individual cases like this, he said, the rate "is almost always $130 an hour" or greater.
"So comparable per case contracts are in reality greater," McHugh said.
Contract provisions for office space and support staff at the county are offered at the extent Betsy might need them to do the job, he said, which she has never requested.
All three county commissioners signed off on Betsy's contract.
Commissioner Todd Tondee said it was McHugh's decision as an elected official to hire Betsy.
Betsy's contract doesn't violate the county employee handbook, Tondee added, which states that close family may not be appointed or hired to supervise or be supervised by other close family.
McHugh made it clear Betsy and her husband would not supervise each other, Tondee said.
"As a contract, Barry said, 'I'm taking that solely to myself. Barry (Black) won't have any input into this at all,'" Tondee said.
Commissioner Dan Green said the commissioners have not discussed increasing compensation for contracted public defense attorneys.
"If Mr. Adams thinks his people are underpaid, I suspect he'd bring forth a request to increase their pay," Green said.
McHugh reminded that Betsy is not a hired employee, but only a contract worker.
"I would think that the public would appreciate that I'm using the best attorneys in a case involving the death of a child," he said.