PASCO — After defeating the 16-year incumbent at the polls, Franklin County's new prosecutor plans to refocus his time and energy during the next eight weeks on the changeover.
Shawn Sant won the election Friday after his former boss, Prosecutor Steve Lowe, conceded the race with a congratulatory e-mail. Sant, a Republican, now must wind down his law practice and prepare to take over an office with a heavy caseload that can't pause for the change.
"I think the biggest thing is just to reassure both staff and the public this is a smooth and regular process," he said. "These kinds of changes happen all the time. Not necessarily in our community, but this is a pretty regular change that happens."
Sant, 40, is a Tri-City lawyer whose lead over Lowe has continued to grow since Tuesday's general election. As of Friday evening, Sant was ahead by 723 votes, or 52 percent.
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Lowe, a Democrat, has been in the elected position since 1995. He watched the returns for a few days, then decided Friday to give Sant the win, offer him assistance in the transition and encourage him to "come in and talk to the employees as soon as possible."
The Franklin County Prosecutor's Office has 25 employees -- 10 of whom are lawyers, not including the elected prosecutor. They handle criminal cases, civil litigation for the county and child support matters.
Sant worked in the office from 2004-06 as a deputy prosecutor with cases in District Court and Juvenile Court.
Hours after getting Lowe's e-mail, Sant acknowledged he now has "a lot of things to do" before Jan. 3.
"It's been a busy day," he said Friday evening. "And I think that's probably the way things are going to go until the end of the year. I'll be winding down my law practice and getting prepared to take on a new practice, taking over and managing a law firm, which is basically the equivalent of taking over a prosecutor's office."
Sant said he took some time off this summer because he knew it would probably be his last break for a while. He and his wife, Kati, live in Pasco with their four kids.
"I think there will be plenty of work for me and I don't see any break for me between now and January, and probably many months after that," he said.
But he's excited for the new challenge.
"I think as Steve has said, it's a pretty responsible position and obviously there's a lot of responsibility to ensure, one, the safety of the citizens of the county, but also to make sure we do a smooth transition. To make sure there's no disruption in any of the services."
Sant said he's informed all of his clients that he will be withdrawing from their cases. He is under contract with Benton County to represent indigent defendants, and those cases will be transferred to the lawyer who takes over his contract.
He also must withdraw from three high-profile cases in Franklin County -- a first-degree murder and attempted murder scheduled to go to trial Jan. 5, another first-degree murder set for Jan. 24 and a first-degree child molestation that could land the defendant in prison for life as a persistent offender.
"I'm not going to be involved in the cases any longer. If I know that I cannot reasonably conclude the case at this point, it wouldn't make sense for me to incur additional time simply for someone else to take over," he said.
His former co-counsel on the murder cases will look for replacements, though Sant said he will share his notes and files with the new lawyers.
As the new prosecutor, Sant also will have to recuse himself from any of those cases he has been involved in as a defense attorney.
Lowe had notified the Franklin County commissioners before the election that $10,000 should be put into the budget in case the office needs to bring in special deputy prosecutors. The money would cover fees if the office has to pay a lawyer in the community to prosecute the cases, instead of getting help from prosecutors in surrounding counties.
After sending a request for assistance to the Washington Attorney General's Office, Lowe said he got a response Friday that they are "completely booked right now" and don't expect their caseload to clear up enough to take on new cases from county prosecutors until late February. Lowe said he notified Sant and was going to send out a letter to the Benton-Franklin bar to see if there is local interest in prosecuting these cases on short notice.
Sant said the ideal situation is to work out a swap with prosecutors in adjacent counties. That office would take on these conflict cases, and somewhere down the road Franklin County would help prosecute a case or two for them.
Sant said he will work with Lowe on setting that up.
"We need to figure out with defense counsel as well if there's an issue of speedy trial, make sure those issues are resolved and take some time to get special prosecutors on board," he added. "If (the defendants or lawyers) want to move forward, we need other options."
In addition to the conflict cases, Sant said there are a number of "pending serious cases" that are important to work through with Lowe during the transition. Sant said Lowe always has been good to work with and he "wouldn't expect anything less" from him through the next couple of months.
Asked if he already has plans for staffing changes, Sant said he hasn't made "any final decisions on that."
"It's fairly new. I want to make sure that most importantly we have individuals that trust me to take the reins," he said. "And obviously I plan on meeting with all the attorneys as well. I want to make sure they feel confident in going forward with me as their boss."
Sant also wants to see if any concerns or issues the staff might have can be resolved before the transition. He said he'll reserve decisions about potential future changes until he meets with the staff, which he's hoping to coordinate in coming weeks.
He also plans to stop by all county departments to introduce himself and make sure the employees feel comfortable with the change and know he will be available to them as the county's lead prosecutor. And in the meantime, he wants to meet with law enforcement to answer any questions and ensure the smooth transition with their cases through the court system.