The Pillar

Bonne Beavers came to the Center for Justice a decade ago, and in quiet and powerful ways she helped build a community institution and a remarkable personal legacy.

By Tim Connor

(April 1, 2012) My friend and colleague Bonne Beavers has been missing from the Center for Justice for most of a month now and I’ve been stuck, ever since, in trying to put a positive spin on her departure.

Just so I’m not alarming any of Bonne’s admirers, I should report that our wispy and most endearingly candid lawyer didn’t die. She’s in Ecuador with her old friend, Katy Maynard, as I write.

But her office, which is just a few feet from mine in the northwest corner of our floor, has been reassigned. For me and the rest of the denizens at the Center it is steadily sinking in that this petite dynamo with the native-West Texas twang in her voice has moved out. From my end of the deal, it is a sobering and lonely turn of events.

“So what do you want to do now?” I’d asked her in late February.

“I want to walk across Europe,” she said, without hesitation, “and get on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That’s what I want to do.”

Well, fine, I was thinking to myself, you want to chase trains in Russia, but where does that leave us?

I didn’t ask that aloud.

“I guess you’ll just have to suck it up,” is what she would have said, and who would want any of that egg on his face?

So as we all try to suck it up and move on, here’s what people should know about Bonne Beavers, what she has meant to the Center for Justice and how she’s contributed to some of the very best work we’ve been able to accomplish thus far.

“The thing with Bonne is that she would look at your argument and look at the law, and then ask you the hardest questions that a judge or your opposing attorney could ask. And that really put you to your proof.”—Spokane attorney Breean Beggs.

She arrived at the Center for Justice a decade ago, but I didn’t get to know her very well until the fall of 2005. That August, the Washington Supreme Court sent a public records case, in which I was the plaintiff, back to Spokane Superior Court. Though we’d won a unanimous and important victory in Olympia, it would be up to a Spokane judge to determine what civil penalties the City of Spokane should pay for withholding dozens of important documents related to its involvement in the scandal-plagued River Park Square public/private venture with the Cowles family.

It was Bonne’s job, working with co-counsel Breean Beggs, to prepare for what would have been a remarkable trial. The River Park Square fraud left behind a fiendishly complicated crime scene, involving at least two sets of bogus appraisals, unlawful confidentiality agreements, and a brilliant piece of public dissembling in which a collateral package offered by the Cowles family had been represented as a multi-million dollar box of chocolates when it was really just a box of worthless rocks. City officials lied to the public about that and withheld records that not only revealed the truth, but disclosed how the City had been coerced into accepting something it shouldn’t have accepted. The stories about this that my editors and I put together at Camas Magazine were pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. To make an effective case for our trial, it was Bonne’s job to frame the public records evidence on top of that jigsaw puzzle, so that a judge could understand the significance of the RPS records that had been illegally withheld from us.

She did that. If our case had gone to trial, she and Breean were more than loaded to argue for penalties approaching seven figures. The case didn’t get that far because the lawsuit settled for what, then, was a record sum of fees and penalties. Before the City agreed to settle the case (and issue a rare, public apology) a lawyer who knew the case inside and out had to explain the strength of our evidence to a new City Attorney, one whose assistant in charge of the case was—it turned out—woefully unprepared to handle it. Bonne provided that briefing at the City Attorney’s behest. The rest is history.

“So what do you want to do now?” I’d asked her in late February. “I want to walk across Europe,” Bonne said, without hesitation, “and get on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That’s what I want to do.”

There’s a clear line between our 2006 RPS settlement and the one reached just last month in the case of Neighborhood Alliance v. Spokane County. Just as Beggs and Beavers had been so well-prepared to litigate the RPS case, they were equally equipped to go to trial in the case brought by Neighborhood Alliance. Like the RPS case, it was a public records case, but one rooted in a coverup of government corruption. This time around, the County paid $400,000 to avoid a trial.

The RPS public records case was just the first big win for the remarkably successful Beavers/Beggs team. There would be several others, and most of them under the radar, resolved before lawsuits were necessary to achieve the desired result.  It’s difficult to put into words the signature of her collegiality and talents within an ensemble of other lawyers, interns, and passionate clients. It is in her nature to be gracious, empathetic and hospitable. But as Breean and the rest of us learned, she doesn’t borrow facts from anyone. She has to walk to the source herself, to all but trace her finger on the page.

“That’s just the way my brain works,” she explains. “I have to start at A and go to Z. I can’t start at D or F.”

“What I loved,” Breean says, “is that I felt like we were a great team. She had her questions and her doubts and she would find the potholes and potential problems, and then she and I would go to work filling the potholes.”

It has never been enough, Breean says, for him to say anything to her about what the law “generally” says.

“Oh she’d always be like, ‘Really? let’s look! Let’s look up that case.’”

Not every legal team works that way. When the two of them worked at CFJ, Beggs’s and Beavers’s offices were next to each other and their doors opened to a pair of large desks where the Center’s interns do their research. Breean says he began to learn how Bonne thinks by picking up on the legal dialogue and banter between Bonne and Noah Patterson, one of the bright law students the Center has been fortunate to help train.

“She was really the first lawyer I worked with who could explain things to me,” Noah recalls. “It was my first year of law school and I just couldn’t have asked for a better lawyer to work with.”

There were a lot of things about Beavers that impressed Patterson, but certain traits stood out for him, like the interplay between her research and the way she organizes her thinking and problem-solving.

“She would ask the question,” Noah says, “and knowing what I was in for, I would do the research. I tried as best I could to come prepared and then she’d listen and ask a dozen questions I hadn’t thought about yet.”

If there was anything about Beavers that impressed Patterson more, it was Bonne’s utter devotion to public service.

“She just has this passion for social justice and for public service and, as much as anybody who’s worked there, she really became such a living part of the place, and what the Center represents.”

Every good organization needs people like Bonne to keep finding its way in the world through the values it espouses. It is a living, dynamic process that forces you to confront your weaknesses while searching, anew, for your strengths and purpose.

Given Bonne’s influence on him, it’s no coincidence that Noah Patterson is now a rising public service lawyer in his own right. Since last summer he’s been working out of Denver as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado.

Because journalism runs in her family, Bonne’s first job was as a wire service reporter in New Orleans. She loved the city, but quickly came to hate the job. The demands to file stories often and with only cursory research were just fundamentally at odds with the core wiring of her intellect.

“It made me crazy,” she says, adding with a crack of sarcasm: “‘What do you mean it’s due tomorrow?’”

“I can’t shoot from the hip,” she explains. “I need more information. That’s why being a public defender didn’t work for me either, because you have to shoot from the hip. You meet your client and off you go, you don’t have time to brief. You have to be an artist at that and it didn’t suit my personality.”

She was finishing a stretch of her career in Boulder, Colorado, as a public defender when she came to the crossroads of the decision that would land her in Spokane. She was divorced and living by herself near the University of Colorado campus in Boulder when one of the Center’s founding lawyers, Gloria Finn Porter, was scheduled to  attend a symposium in Boulder. Katy Maynard, an old friend from Bonne’s youth, arranged for Gloria to stay with Bonne while Gloria was in Boulder and, in short order, Bonne was being recruited to  join the Center. She decided to give it a try. She volunteered at the Center during the summer of 2001 and then went back to Boulder having to choose whether to take a newly offered job handling appeals for the public defender’s office in Colorado, or starting anew in Spokane. She chose us.

To the extent that people outside the Center didn’t hear much about Bonne (or even know what she looks like) it’s because she avoids the spotlight, not to mention our cameras.

Ironically, the best picture I have on her came from one of our worst days. She and Breean and I had trekked out to Davenport for the first court hearing in Neighborhood Alliance v. Spokane County. This was four years ago. A Lincoln County judge threw the case out that day and, because it’s harder to lose when you’re so sure you’re right, we all felt a little sick for ourselves and for our client. On the way back, we pulled off on a side road so I could get a few photos of Breean outside of an office or a courthouse. In the process, I managed to get a few of Bonne as she was fleeing back toward the car.

Neighborhood Alliance wound up to be a stunning success, of course and a great way for her to end her career at the Center. I’ll try to be brief, but there are a couple other cases I can share that, in my view, illustrate the breadth of her legal work for the Center.

Bonne (left) during a CFJ staff photo shoot in 2011. (Erika Prins photo.)

The first is a Spokane River case. Bonne Beavers is the only person I know to have caused a federal agency to hold a press conference and apologize for its science. This happened in early September of 2008, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters had received a letter Bonne had written in June of that year.

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA and state agencies are supposed to protect water bodies from pollution discharges that cause violations of water quality standards.  As many people know, the Spokane River is especially “tight” when it comes to phosphorous pollution that causes dead zones in the river, particularly during late summer. Regionally, EPA has struggled with this problem because polluters in both Idaho and Washington contribute to the Spokane River’s phosphorous loading.

The Idaho polluters, in particular, don’t like to be blamed (or regulated) for crapping up water bodies downstream in Washington, so they persuaded EPA and even the Washington Department of Ecology to engage in a two-bit fraud to make the Idaho pollution disappear as it flows into Washington just west of Post Falls.

The Idaho pollution would be considered “background.”

“The cumulative loadings provided for under this approach,” Beavers noted in her letter, would more than double the amount of pollution flowing into Lake Spokane in Washington.

“Using this kind of math will never result in restoration of Lake Spokane.”

Which was objectively true. But then she continued: the magical math scheme the regional EPA office had gotten behind, Beavers pointed out, “makes a mockery of EPA’s national watershed approach” to cleaning up water pollution in countless rivers that transcend and form state boundaries.

The result of Beavers’s letter was a remarkable public meeting in east Spokane where Christine Psyk, a top EPA official, apologized for the error, withdrew the scheme, and then used the occasion as a living, current example of why public comment matters.

“That’s just the way my brain works,” Bonne says when asked why she is so meticulously hands-on about her research and organizing. “I have to start at A and go to Z. I can’t start at D or F.”

Not that she didn’t bring great energy to everything else she touched, but Bonne’s specialty and passion during her years at the Center was in the area of civil rights. She was driven to help children, parents, teachers, and others who’d been gobbled up in administrative or legal systems that, however well-intended, sometimes inflict great punishment on innocent people.

One case I reported on in 2008, was that of Karmen Hassinger, an assistant director at a Spokane child care center who came to work one day in 2005 and learned that a state agency had classified her as a threat to children. The child care center was in the position of having its license pulled unless it fired Karmen. This bitter choice was based solely on an anonymous complaint that had been filed against Karmen and her former husband when Karmen was 17 years-old and living in another city. She’d never known about the anonymous complaint, nor had been given the opportunity to rebut it. Working with her friend and frequent co-counsel Terri Sloyer, Bonne and the Center were able to intervene, purge the “finding” from Karmen’s record, and save Karmen and her children from what would have been a devastating blow to their lives.

More recently, Bonne and Terri won an important parental rights case at the Washington state Court of Appeals that, in a quiet but powerful way, should make life better for struggling parents and their children in Washington.

This was the case of a young mother, Tia Link, who willingly tendered custody of her six year-old son to her mother while Tia was struggling with substance abuse. After getting clean, Tia sought to get her son back only to learn that, under Washington’s third party custody process, she had gotten trapped in the system.

Washington’s child custody laws were treating Tia Link’s voluntary consent to temporarily allow her son to live and be supported by her mother as though there had been a court finding that Tia Link was an unfit mother. There had been no such finding. And still Tia Link was faced with having no path or process to regain custody of her son unless she could show a court that there’d been a change, for the worse, in the conditions of her son’s custody.

Last November, though, the Court of Appeals published its ruling  that Tia Link’s rights as a parent had been violated and that the sections of state law that permitted the violation are unconstitutional.

What the Appeals Court decision means is that fathers and mothers in Tia’s position are entitled to due process before being treated as unfit parents. One practical effect of this is that struggling parents in Tia’s situation can now agree to voluntarily transfer custody of their children temporarily without having to worry that they won’t be able to get their kids back if the person(s) to whom they temporarily transferred custody of their children refuse to give them back.

The Link case didn’t garner any publicity, and yet it is, like Karmen Hassinger’s case, one of those benchmark triumphs that define the core of what the Center for Justice has been about over the past 12 years. As Noah Patterson pointed out when I spoke to him, Bonne’s work is permanently intertwined with that legacy.

Where we go and how we go without Bonne is unquestionably a challenge. As founder, Jim Sheehan, reported in an interview with the Inlander fifteen months ago, the Center has been working with a dramatically reduced budget since 2009. But even if we were flush, Bonne’s loss would hurt and there’d be no putting a gloss on it. It is not apart from her legal skills that she possesses an unflinching personal integrity. Every good organization needs people like Bonne to keep finding its way in the world through the values it espouses. It is a living, dynamic process that forces you to confront your weaknesses while searching, anew, for your strengths and purpose.

In that regard, she’s been a quietly amazing and deeply appreciated friend and role model. I hope she knows that the love and commitment she brought to us, to her clients, and to her cause are still here, working away as quietly and tenaciously as she has.

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