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Washington AG’s office, DSHS fined for evidence withholding

| May 4, 2023 9:27 PM

SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington state attorney general’s office and Department of Social and Health Services have been fined $200,000 — and could pay hundreds of thousands more in legal fees — for what a judge called “egregious” and “cavalier” withholding of evidence in an ongoing lawsuit.

King County Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan ordered the fine in March as a “severe sanction” for the state failing to turn over nearly 11,000 pages of records to attorneys suing over the alleged neglect of a developmentally disabled woman at a home in Kent, The Seattle Times reported.

“The discovery violations in this case are egregious, severe, without excuse and the result of willful disregard of discovery obligations by both DSHS” and the attorney general’s office, Ryan wrote in his 12-page order.

The attorney general’s office admitted it additionally discovered 100,000 pages of records that had been wrongfully withheld, according to court filings.

Ryan’s ruling also makes it the state's responsibility to pay the legal fees for the plaintiff’s attorneys. In a motion Friday, attorneys with the Seattle law firm Hagens Berman determined the state should pay the firm $214,000. A hearing on the fees is scheduled for next week.

That amount doesn't include the time Hagens Berman attorneys will spend reviewing over 100,000 pages recently turned over, meaning the total cost could grow.

Ryan in April also appointed Seattle attorney Russell Aoki as a “discovery master” in the case. He has been instructed to investigate the discovery violations and determine whether the state has hidden more documents.

Aoki's pay — $500 an hour — is billed to the state. He is authorized to interview attorney general's office and DSHS employees and to hire a forensic computer expert — also at state expense. He will draft a report detailing his findings.

The increasingly costly legal blunders are coming to light as Attorney General Bob Ferguson launches his run for governor. The three-term Democrat has led the attorney general's office since 2013.

The penalties and withholding of documents in the case were first reported by McClatchy.

In an April 3 letter to Ryan disclosing the new relevant documents, Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Meyer said the state “deeply regrets the errors in discovery in this case and is working to rectify them.”

Among the records belatedly turned over to the plaintiff’s attorneys were emails in which a case manager with DSHS appeared to laugh at reports that the woman was being neglected at the home, writing “LOL” in the emails, the Seattle Times reported.

Last year, while the records were being withheld, the attorney general’s office sought to have the lawsuit dismissed — and attempted to prevent Hagens Berman from questioning DSHS about whether it had more records, the Times wrote.

Attorneys for the plaintiff declined to comment to the newspaper about this story, citing the ongoing probe by Aoki.