Muscatine County’s new prosecutor called a ‘dangerous’ choice for the job

nterior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.
Courtroom and gavel (Photo by Getty Images)

The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Monday morning to appoint as its new county attorney James Barry, the former Cass County prosecutor who was forced from office over a ticket-fixing scandal.

Barry will fill out the remaining six months in the term of former Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren, who resigned effective May 1. With his appointment taking effect today, Barry is now Muscatine County’s top law enforcement officer.

In 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court suspended Barry’s law license for numerous violations of the Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility for Lawyers.

At Monday’s meeting, Muscatine County Supervisor Scott Sauer said Barry “has had some hiccups on his past,” but added, “I certainly don’t have a problem with the gentleman.”

Supervisor Santos Saucedo noted that Barry “passionately wants” the position. “He’s made his mistakes and obviously he’s reformed,” he said.

Supervisor Nathan Miller said he had talked to people who know Barry and who say “the man is completely changed” and is the most honest person they know. Miller said he feels Barry’s hiring  is justified in that “we have a desperate need for experience in the county attorney’s office and he was the only one who applied for the position.”

Prior to the board’s vote, Elizabeth Araguás, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Muscatine County Bar Association, questioned how much effort had been put into finding applicants for the job and urged the board to reject Barry’s appointment.

“The malfeasance committed by Mr. Barry is not a hiccup, and it is not an accident,” she said. “It was years of deliberate fraud. Six months with him as your county attorney is very dangerous and it’s not your only option … This is a very, very dangerous choice to make and on behalf of the bar association, we urge the board to proceed with caution … It is truly dangerous to the people to the people of Muscatine County to let someone like this serve as county attorney for six months.”

Araguás noted the county’s former jail administrator, Dean Naylor, left the county’s employ only a week ago after the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported he had authored an anti-Muslim treatise that was posted online several years ago.

“Muscatine County is in the process of cleaning up some messes, including relieving Mr. Naylor from his post as the jail chief,” she said. “That was good news to hear — that the county was taking that seriously.”

Barry was forced from the Cass County Attorney’s Office in 2004 after the Des Moines Register published a series of stories about his office fabricating tickets for equipment violations to generate revenue for the county.

As Cass County attorney, Barry had a practice of dismissing speeding tickets in return for the drivers’ written agreement to plead guilty to numerous, fictitious vehicle-equipment violations. Those “violations” didn’t count against the motorists’ driving record, but generated revenue for the county, which was then routed to a safe in the sheriff’s office.

Barry also was found to have traded property seized from criminal defendants for “donations” to the sheriff’s office. In one case, he held a drug defendant’s truck until the individual agreed to make a $500 donation to the sheriff’s office.

At the time, Barry admitted he knew that the money derived from the fictitious tickets and the property seizures should not have been retained by the county.

“I’m aware of where the funds are supposed to go,” he said. “I’m aware of a lot of laws that whether we like it or not aren’t enforced by the letter.”

After the stories were published, a group of Cass County citizens banded together and presented the court with a petition asking that Barry be removed from office. After a trial, a judge forced both Barry and Cass County Sheriff Larry Jones from office.

The Iowa Supreme Court subsequently suspended Barry’s license for a minimum of one year.

“Even persons who were receiving favorable treatment questioned Barry’s sense of justice,” the court stated in its ruling. “Ultimately, this conduct led to Barry’s removal from office for knowingly breaching his duties as county attorney with a purpose to do wrong. Instead of serving the people honorably, he chose to engage in conduct involving questionable practices.”

The court stated Barry’s actions had brought the entire state’s system of justice into disrepute: “As one person who made a plea agreement with Barry stated: ‘I thought this was a pretty sweet way to do justice. I mean, it was quick and efficient and more in my world of business than what I think of as, you know, the court system.’ ”

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.