Friday, June 17, 2005

Attorneys spar before Johnson sentencing

Public defender seeks to remove prosecutor from case

Express Staff Writer

The defense attorney for convicted Bellevue murderer Sarah Johnson lashed back this week after the Blaine County Prosecutor's Office accused him of intentionally overcharging Blaine County for his services as a public defender.

In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Boise-based attorney Bob Panburn called the prosecutor's office's allegations "shenanigans."

"What they're saying is nothing short of slander," Pangburn said. "The county is trying to find a way, apparently, to save face because of the expense of this case and blame someone else."

In an objection filed June 10 in 5th District Court in Hailey, county Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas wrote that Pangburn charged $130 per hour instead of the $65 per hour specified in a public defender contract.

Pangburn answered in a June 14 motion to remove Thomas and his staff from the case, alleging that the prosecutor's representation of both the state and the county is "highly improper and unethical, and is a blatant violation of Sarah Johnson's constitutional rights."

"Sarah Johnson has yet to be sentenced, and still has a constitutionally guaranteed right to the representation of counsel at public expense," Pangburn wrote. "Without adequate funding, her right to a defense is a dead letter."

Following a six-week trial that ended March 12, Johnson was convicted of shooting and killing her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the family's Bellevue home on Sept. 2, 2003.

The trial has cost Blaine County taxpayers close to $1 million. But the county thinks it has paid about $60,000 too much.

"Currently, both defense counsel Bob Pangburn and Mark Rader have overcharged and erroneously received $60,710 in excess hourly payments alone, from the county alone," Thomas wrote.

In a hearing Tuesday afternoon in 5th District Court, Pangburn and Thomas agreed that the public defender contract is not ambiguous. Apparently they disagree outright about what it states. The matter could be sorted out at a June 23 hearing at 10 a.m.

Pangburn's seven-page public defender contract, signed by then Blaine County Commission Chairman Dennis Wright, Blaine County Clerk Marsha Reimann and Pangburn on Aug. 19, 2003, secured his services for one year, between Oct. 1, 2003, and Sept. 30, 2004. Under the contract, he was to be paid $15,500 per month, plus $65 per hour for work on a first- or second-degree murder case.

The contract also contained a separate provision for attorneys whose compacts have expired. It clearly states that public defenders whose contracts are not renewed, and who are not allowed to withdraw from a case, will be compensated at a rate of $65 per hour.

And that appears to be the crux of the case in question.

The Blaine County Commission declined to renew Pangburn's contract for the 2004-2005 fiscal year, and, late last year, Pangburn moved the court to allow him to withdraw from the case. His motion was denied.

Pangburn said the county's contract supports his billing.

"It's not rocket science," he said. "The contract says what it says. It's their contract."

He continued, calling actions by the prosecutor's office "absurd" and "dishonest."

"And it's slanderous to say that I somehow overcharged the county," he said. "It's just flat incorrect."

The timing of Thomas' motion, just three weeks before Johnson's scheduled sentencing, is something Pangburn called into question as well.

"It's clearly intended to chill us from doing the work we are meant to do for Sarah's sentencing," he said. "To me, it seems clearly designed to disrupt Sarah's constitutional, contractual right to a defense."

What's more, Pangburn said this is only the most recent hurdle the prosecutor's office and the Blaine County Sheriff's Office have placed before him. He filed motions with the court seeking easier access to Johnson, who was moved to a jail in Rexburg shortly after her conviction. He and other members of her defense team have filed affidavits stating they were denied access to their client.

"From the day they charged this case, they have violated Sarah's rights, and, in the case of Jim Thomas, has acted unethically," Pangburn said.

He said that, in addition to seeking Thomas' and the prosecutor's office's removal from the case, he would report Thomas' actions to the Idaho State Bar.

"I'm obligated ethically to report this to the bar," he said. "I don't want to do that. It saddens me because I thought these guys were my friends. I thought they were professionals, but their shenanigans have shown me otherwise."

Blaine County contracted with Pangburn as a public defender for three consecutive years, ending in October 2004. He has been a member of the Idaho Bar since September 1988, and his membership with the bar is listed as "active."

Pangburn resigned from the Oregon State Bar in September 2004 while disciplinary matters were pending against him. According to state bar records, Pangburn was accused of "multiple violations of the disciplinary rules involving multiple client matters." Those included "dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation, including conversion of client funds," "illegal or excessive fees," and "failing to deposit and maintain client funds in trust."

Kateri Walsh, the Oregon State Bar's community relations administrator, called the Form B resignation "the functional equivalent of being disbarred."

According to the bar's records, Pangburn had 42 complaints in his file. Twenty-nine of those had been dismissed, one resulted in an admonishment (the lowest form of discipline), one in a public reprimand and the other 11 were consolidated in the case that resulted in his resignation.

In June 2001, Pangburn received a public reprimand from the Idaho State Bar for several violations of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct.

Pangburn said Wednesday that the Oregon matter is "not relevant at all."

"For a month and a half, my work was evaluated daily," he said. "I got nothing but glowing reviews from my colleagues and others. Quite the opposite, I believe the prosecutor's office has engaged in their tactics because I have worked them very hard."

Leading up to Johnson's June 30 and July 1 sentencing hearing, Pangburn said things are going as well as can be expected.

"It could be better," he said. "We could not be doing a sentence."

He called the current interactions between the prosecutor's office and himself a mess, and he doesn't expect the dealings to be over for some time.

"We're not through with each other, and probably won't be for a long time," he said. "I believe we will be successful on appeal and that we will be successful in a new trial."

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