Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGO 1957 No. 40 - Mar 28 1957
Attorney General John J. O'Connell


The county treasurer may hold up payment of a warrant if he believes such payment will be illegal; he may not split the warrant, paying the concededly valid portion only, but must obtain from the county auditor a new warrant in the correct amount.

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                                                                  March 28, 1957

Honorable Paul Klasen
Prosecuting Attorney
Grant County
Ephrata, Washington                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 57-58 No. 40


Dear Sir:

            We have received your request concerning the interpretation of our previous opinion, AGO 57-58 No. 26, in which we held that it would be illegal for the director of an irrigation district to expend public funds for the purpose of lobbying for federal legislation.  With reference to this opinion, you have submitted photostats of vouchers, on the face of which certain expenditures are shown.

            You have specifically inquired:

            (1) Whether any of the expenses on the vouchers are illegal under the holding of the aforementioned opinion.

            (2) Whether the county treasurer may hold up payment on a warrant issued in accordance with the vouchers.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            (3) If it is proper for the treasurer to split the warrant, allowing payment for such expenses as are concededly valid.

            Our answers to your questions are as follows:

            (1) This office may not decide whether the expenses listed on the vouchers have been legally incurred.

            (2) The county treasurer may hold up payment on a warrant issued in accordance with the vouchers, if he believes such payment would be illegal.

            (3) The treasurer may not split the warrant, but must obtain a new one, as there is no authority for the partial payment of a warrant.


            (1) We noted in our previous opinion that without all the evidence before it, this office could not pass upon the question of whether or not a particular expenditure was or was not authorized.  On their face, the vouchers you have submitted show no illegal or invalid expense and the treasurer would have no affirmative duty based on the vouchers and warrant alone to refuse to make payment.  Whether some of the listed expenses were actually illegal is a question of fact, which we are not in a position to resolve.

            (2) InState ex rel. Olympia National Bank v. Lewis, 62 Wash. 266, it was held that where the admitted facts showed that a state warrant had been illegally issued, and that it was based largely on false and fraudulent claims, the duty of the state treasurer to refuse payment thereof was clear.  This conclusion was reaffirmed in State ex rel. Bonsall v. Case, 172 Wash. 243, 246, where the court stated:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            "It is further contended that, since the respondent, the state treasurer, is a ministerial officer and the warrant was valid on its face, that officer had no right to question its validity.  Section 11019, Rem. Rev. Stat., provides that

            "'It shall be the duty of the state treasurer,‑- * * * (2) To disburse the public moneys, only upon warrants drawn upon the treasurer by the state auditor, in the order of their number, date, and issue; * * *'

            "There is nothing in the language of that statute, or which arises by necessary implication, that prevents the state treasurer from questioning the validity of a warrant presented to him for payment.  InState ex rel. Publishing Co. v. Lindsley, 3 Wash. 125, 27 Pac. 1019, it was held that the state treasurer could lawfully question the legality of a warrant issued by the state auditor on the ground that the legislature had made no appropriation out of which the warrant could be paid.  It was there said:

            "'The treasurer, therefore, being in a position where he is as well qualified as the auditor to say whether or not there is an appropriation, may lawfully question the legality of any warrant on that ground.'"

            RCW 36.29.010 is the statute setting forth the duties of the county treasurer.  Subsection (1) is very similar to the statute relating to the duties of the state treasurer, quoted inState ex rel. Bonsall v. Case, as set forth above. It reads merely:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            "The county treasurer:

            "(1) Shall receive all money due the county and disburse it on warrants issued and attested by the county auditor;"

            It seems to us that the reasoning of State ex rel. Olympia National Bank v. Lewis and ofState ex rel. Bonsall v. Case (which were both decided with reference to the state treasurer) can be equally well applied to the situation of the county treasurer.  It is true that we are here presented with no question of fraud or of a failure of appropriation; we do have, however, a question of a possibly illegally issued warrant, and the principles that should govern the county treasurer's behavior in this situation seem to us basically the same as those which the court held should govern the state treasurer's actions in the cases where that official was involved.

            Should the county treasurer decide that it would be illegal to pay the warrant, then, of course, the payee may bring a mandamus action to compel him to do so.  In such an action, all questions relating to the legality of the warrant may be tried out in court.  State ex rel. Titlow v. Centralia, 93 Wash. 401, and cases cited therein.

            (3) InState ex rel. Olympia National Bank v. Lewis, quoted above, the supreme court held that the state treasurer might not split a warrant, authorizing payment for those expenses which had been legally incurred, and refusing such payment for other expenses.  The language of the court was as follows:

            "It was suggested on the oral argument that, since the agreed facts show the amount of the fraudulent claims and valid claims separately, upon which the warrant was issued, we should in any event direct payment of the warrant for the amount  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] of the valid claims.  This would be performing the duty of the auditing board and the state auditor.  We have nothing before us indicating that the auditing board and auditor will refuse to audit and issue a warrant for the proper amount of these valid claims upon surrender of this warrant.  And even if this record did so indicate, we are unable to see how the treasurer could be compelled to pay such amount except upon a proper warrant therefor issue by the auditor.  When a proper warrant in payment of these claims is refused the relator, it will be time enough for the courts to hear any controversy arising upon such refusal.  The treasurer's duty, among others prescribed by statute, is 'To disburse the public moneys only upon warrants drawn upon the treasurer by the state auditor.'  Rem. & Bal. Code, § 9026.  We do not think it is within our province in this proceeding to adjudicate the amount due upon these claims, even though the agreed facts leaves no uncertainty as to such amount."

            Once again it seems to us that the rule laid down for the state treasurer is equally applicable to the county treasurer, and that the latter should act accordingly.  Should he conclude that he is unable to pay the full amount of the warrant, he must wait until the county auditor has issued him a new warrant, in the correct amount, before paying for that portion of the expenses which he concedes to have been validly incurred.

            We trust the foregoing will prove helpful.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General