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Legal services dinner celebrates partnership

Two Kitsap County agencies joined together on Thursday to thank its supporters and ended up creating a partnership that could change the face of local legal services.

An added bonus was the presence of a national figure who provided additional perspective about what may lie ahead for the United States Department of Justice.

The Dispute Resolution Center of Kitsap County and Kitsap Legal Services sponsored the "Justice For All” awards, which honored Greg Abell, senior partner for Bainbridge Island-based Sound Options Group, and Olivia Dennis, longtime executive director of Kitsap Legal Services. Dennis is retiring next month.

“We wanted to recognize these two people for their outstanding work toward making the legal system accessible to low-income citizens of Kitsap County,” said Jennifer Brugger, president of the KLS board. “Greg and Olivia have both made incredible contributions year after year.”

Unexpectedly, the dinner turned into a fundraising opportunity, which is certain to turn into a yearly event.

“It was intended as an opportunity to bring us all together,” said DRC Marketing Director Lisa Cragg. “But we ended up making some money, that could be used to support programs or just keep the lights on. We were thrilled. It definitely exceeded our expectations.”

Cragg couldn’t say exactly how much was raised, but reported 200 tickets were sold at $50 apiece.

While there are no plans to merge the two organizations, their cooperation is a natural step. They both attend to the legal needs of low-income county residents, helping them to resolve legal problems both inside and outside of court.

“I am excited to see these two organizations come together to provide better services,” said retired Superior Court Judge Leonard Cruse, the event’s master of ceremonies.

Kruse went on to quote anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Attendees included all eight members of the Kitsap County Superior Court, along with several other local judges. Poulsbo Municipal Court Judge Jeffery Tolman was singled out for special attention by guest speaker John McKay, who acknowledged the generally overdressed room by saying “Tolman told me that no one in Kitsap County wears a tie.”

Now a Seattle University law professor, McKay was fired one year ago as U.S. Attorney for political reasons. He spoke informally and extemporaneously about the experience, correcting several misconceptions about the incident.

“As U.S. attorneys we serve the president and can be fired at any time,” he said. “When I was fired I felt it was my duty to go quietly. So I decided to not go public.

“There were accounts in the press that said the fired U.S. attorneys only went public to defend their records because they were accused of incompetence,” he said. “That’s not true. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified in front of Congress that he never intended to use the Patriot Act to bypass congressional approval for new U.S. Attorneys. I knew that was a lie, so I decided to speak out at that time.

“I never expected the attorney general to lie,” he said. “And if I didn’t speak out then my silence could be interpreted as complicity in that lie.”

McKay said he expected the Inspector General of the Department of Justice will announce a criminal investigation in the next few weeks with Gonzales as its subject.

“The attorney general said he did not remember a conversation he had with the president about a specific U.S. Attorney,” he said. “If this conversation took place the attorney general would not forget about it.”

McKay then evoked "I Love Lucy” by saying Gonzales “has some ‘splainin’ to do.”

More prosaically, McKay lauded the reason for the gathering.

“Not too long ago judges believed that support for legal aid was a political statement,” he said. “But we’ve had a complete change in attitude since the 1990s, when it was the judges who stepped forward and said the complete evisceration of the legal service budget was unacceptable.

“There are those who don’t believe that low income people should be represented in court,” he said. “But there are others who believe access to the legal system is a keystone to democracy. So this is not just another dinner, it’s an important event for our state. And it’s important that judges are willing to be seen participating in legal access issues.”

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