Port of Kennewick, ex-commissioner spar over legal fees

The Port of Kennewick commission has agreed to hire an outside attorney after it was faulted by the state auditor’s office for  reimbursing a commissioner for $49,000 in legal fees. 

The Washington State Auditor issued the port its first such finding in 27 years on Jan. 19, faulting its decision to cover legal fees incurred by now former Commissioner Don Barnes. 

The letter said the fees were not reimbursable under state law and that Barnes should not have voted to reimburse himself. 

Barnes’ Kennewick lawyer disagreed with the state’s findings. 

In a Feb. 7 letter to the port, Joel Comfort of Miller Mertens & Comfort PLLC advised the port that the fees were reimbursable, that Barnes was not wrong to vote on his own behalf and that he has no intention of voluntarily “disgorging” or reimbursing the port.

He said Barnes will “vigorously” defend himself if the port pursues reimbursement.

“It has already wasted nearly $500,000 in taxpayer dollars related to this matter. Perhaps it’s time for it to put its money toward more useful endeavors,” Comfort wrote. 

The matter stems from an investigation that concluded Barnes violated port rules in relation to his opposition to a private land sale near Vista Field involving Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. He appealed, retained outside counsel and was exonerated by an independent judge.

The auditor’s office advised the port to consider seeking restitution. Lucinda Luke, the port’s attorney, recommended the port follow the auditor’s letter and retain outside counsel to conduct further legal review and advise the port on whether further action is necessary or required by law.

The commission agreed it wanted her to move ahead with the plan.   

In 2021, Barnes, together with Commissioner Tom Moak, voted to compensate himself for more than $49,000 in legal fees even after an outside review said the amount was too high.

A third commissioner, Skip Novakovich, abstained, citing legal concerns. 

Barnes left the commission at the end of 2021 and was succeeded by Commissioner Ken Hohenberg, who was not a party to the discussion.

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