February 2013 Bar Bulletin
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February 2013 Bar Bulletin

Groundhog Day: A Case To Live Over and Over

By Scott Missall


I met Gary Peterson on a sunny day at the Kent Justice Center in 2002. Gary was a local businessman and newly elected Des Moines city councilmember, and a first-class gentleman.

A lawsuit was filed against Gary mere days after he took office, seeking to remove him from the City Council on the basis of an alleged conflict of interest - namely, that Gary's family owned Pete's Towing in Des Moines. Because Pete's was occasionally called by the Des Moines Police Department to tow cars left on city streets, that created an alleged conflict of interest under RCW 42.23.030, which prohibits public officers from having a beneficial interest in contracts made under their supervision.

The opposition to Gary was intense from the beginning because his election altered the balance of power on the City Council. Despite attempts to keep Gary from even being sworn into office and continuous calls for his resignation thereafter, Gary steadfastly refused to step down, stating that he had done nothing wrong by running for office and that he had no conflict of interest in serving on the City Council while owning a local business.

When I met Gary, he was represented by Arthur Langlie, son of the former Washington governor of the same name. I was representing three other members of the Des Moines City Council who had been sued (along with Gary) in another lawsuit for an alleged violation of the Open Public Meetings Act. Art died very unexpectedly not long after I met Gary, and Gary asked me to handle his case.

All told, over the next four years I defended four separate legal actions against Gary and the other three councilmembers - the two lawsuits and two recall actions - all seeking to remove one or more of my clients from their seats. It was hard fought and highly contentious on all fronts, and from everything I could see was largely motivated to achieve political ends.

On July 7, 2006, I leapt for joy when the Washington Supreme Court upheld a unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeals that Gary did not have a conflict of interest in simultaneously owning Pete's Towing and serving on the Des Moines City Council [Citizens for Des Moines v. Petersen, 125 Wn. App. 760 (2005)]. That decision was the culmination of five or six trial and appellate court decisions, all of which ruled in Gary's favor on each of the cases challenging his status as a councilmember. It was quite a run from my perspective and we even made some new law on conflicts of interest in the state.

Mostly, though, I was happy for Gary. Here was a quiet and thoughtful man who simply wanted to serve his community as he was elected to do and who truly believed he had done nothing wrong. For all his good intentions, during his entire four-year Council term Gary was forced to endure the harshest assaults on his character and had to pay for his defense out of his own pocket (which is another story).

Gary was proud to be vindicated by the Supreme Court that day, and to have his honor and integrity restored. He told me personally, and stated publicly, "It just goes to show you that the truth matters, despite how some people try to manipulate things."

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