GRAND RAPIDS — A federal judge directed harsh words at an attorney who represents Leelanau County, but didn't immediately decide whether to remove him from an ongoing federal lawsuit.
Christopher Cooke is defending Leelanau Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf, Undersheriff Scott Wooters and the county in a lawsuit filed in early 2009 by a group of sheriff's deputies. Cooke was ordered to appear Tuesday before U.S. District Court Judge Janet T. Neff in Grand Rapids and explain why he sent a "threatening" letter to Leelanau Prosecutor Joseph Hubbell and Assistant Prosecutor Doug Donaldson.
Attorneys for the deputies want to call Hubbell and Donaldson as witnesses in the trial. Cooke's letter appeared to instruct the prosecutors to alter their testimony, Neff said, or to avoid testifying altogether.
"You don't, as a lawyer, threaten people ... with dire consequences if they testify," a visibly irritated Neff told Cooke. "It just violates every precept of proper procedure."
Cooke, of Cummings, McClorey, Davis and Acho in Traverse City, said he didn't intend to intimidate Donaldson or Hubbell.
"Those clearly weren't my intentions," he said.
Neff wasn't convinced.
"I believe that any reasonable reading would lead to the conclusion that they are very thinly veiled threats to these two men," Neff said.
Neff called Tuesday's hearing so Cooke could argue why he shouldn't be removed from the case because of the letter. She didn't make a decision or give a timeline for when she'll decide whether to remove him. The lawsuit remains on hold until that decision.
The suit stems from allegations that Oltersdorf and Wooters listened to conversations on what employees believed to be private lines at the sheriff's department in several instances dating to 2006. It alleges invasion of privacy and a violation of wire-tapping laws, among other counts.
Neff said the case, which continues to absorb the county's time, has been "unduly contentious."
"The contentiousness, in my view, has gone beyond the bounds of reasonable advocacy," she said of the attorneys involved. "Much of the behavior of the lawyers in this case has been offensive to me."
Attorneys Mike Dettmer, Bill Rastetter and Michael Grant represent the deputies.