A Curry County judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by County Treasurer David Barnes against Commissioner Court Boice.
The suit alleged Boice improperly requested a payment of more than $3,000 from the county for the reimbursement of legal expenses he accrued in a previous lawsuit between him and the county, which was decided in 2018.
In the previous suit, other members of the board of commissioners and the former director of operations claimed Boice had travelled on business without first getting approval from the board. They also alleged he had gone over-budget on his allotted travel expenses for the year. After hearing the case, Circuit Judge Andrew Combs ruled in favor of Boice, with no costs or fees being awarded to either side, according to court documents.
After the decision, Boice requested a payment from the county totaling $3,288 for legal fees associated with the suit. After the board voted against the payment, former County Counsel John Huttl approved Boice’s request. Huttl explained his reasoning in a July 2019 memo to the former Director of Operations Julie Schmelzer.
“If it is not a public purpose, it can be considered an illegal gift...However, there is a public purpose to the expense, and therefore not a gift under that doctrine. The expense was to conduct county business. That is not questioned,” wrote Huttl.
Despite the judge’s decision to not award costs or fees to either side, Huttl added that the county could reimburse Boice for legal expenses under a law that allows local governments to make payments “founded in justice and supported by a moral obligation.”
Barnes, however, disagreed with Huttl’s decision to approve the payment.
“The treasurer’s office alleges that Counsel Huttl knowingly and willfully defied and overrode the order of Judge Combs...and applied his own standards of “‘moral and equitable’” to improperly authorize payment to Mr. Boice, which by court order he was not eligible or due,” wrote the treasurer’s office in their complaint.
Nevertheless, Combs also dismissed the most recent case due to “procedural matters,” and yet again, no costs or fees were awarded to either party, according to the June 21 decision. One of the reasons Combs listed for dismissing the case was a suit against a commissioner on behalf of the county would have to come from the board of commissioners, rather than the treasurer’s office.
The Oregon Department of Justice was also looking into the matter for criminal wrongdoing but has since dropped the investigation.
“We have determined that a criminal investigation would not likely lead to evidence that would support criminal prosecution relating to the reimbursement,” according to a May 6 report from the assistant attorney general at the Oregon DOJ.
“County Counsel Huttl was acting within his authority when he issued his opinion that the reimbursement for costs was legal and Commissioner Boice’s claim for payment could be approved; no crimes are implicated in his conduct.”
Additionally, the report states Boice requested the payment through the appropriate channels and did not act outside of his official duties as commissioner in doing so.
In an interview with the Pilot, Boice said the decisions by the circuit court, as well as the state DOJ are an exoneration. He said the perpetual lawsuits and internal struggle are hurting the county’s reputation.
“Commissioner [Chris] Paasch was in the courtroom to go against me, I mean, what does that say about the county government?” Said Boice. “It should have never happened, it all could have been avoided.”
Paasch explained why he believes Boice should not have been reimbursed during a July 7 board of commissioner’s meeting. Typically, commissioners sign-off on county payments, he said.
“On this payment invoice there is no commissioner approval, meaning that it was never shown to a commissioner for approval, and that is part of the grounds why I personally believe it shouldn’t have been paid,” said Paasch.
Despite the ruling, Barnes said he still believes Boice acted inappropriately by requesting the payment.
“Just because he didn’t get prosecuted does not mean that a crime was not committed,” said Barnes.