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Democratic prosecutor hopefuls offer clear choice

Sun., Aug. 27, 2006

The two Democrats vying for a shot at incumbent Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker come from different legal backgrounds, but they agree that the community needs more leadership from its chief criminal legal officer.

Deputy Kootenai County prosecutor Jim Reierson, a Spokane resident who was twice defeated in races for Spokane County District judge, is facing 68-year-old attorney Bob Caruso, who has been practicing law for seven years after a successful career selling carpet.

Caruso said Tucker has several deputy prosecutors who are bright. But Caruso, whose brother worked 18 years for former prosecutor Don Brockett, argues that Tucker just isn’t using those employees well.

“The community at large is outraged with his inaction,” Caruso said, referring to several recent high-profile cases. “They want a change, and nobody will step up to the plate. I have the capacity and capability and human relations skills and organizational powers to do that.”

Reierson, 56, who has worked as a prosecutor in Coeur d’Alene, Walla Walla and in the military, agrees with Caruso about the need for change. But he argues that Caruso just doesn’t have the background needed to succeed as a Tucker replacement.

“I think it would be very difficult to assume leadership of one of the largest prosecuting offices in the state without a background in criminal law,” Reierson said. Caruso “may have done a good job running a carpet installation business, but that is apples and oranges compared to running a prosecuting attorney’s office.”

Both candidates served in the military, and Reierson continues to serve as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves.

Caruso, the retired businessman, made headlines for a lawsuit he filed against the Teamsters Union. Caruso sued after union officials told their members to boycott his business in an article printed in the Washington Teamster newspaper.

The case started in 1973 when Caruso objected to a Teamster member parking his beer truck on his parking lot without permission. The case eventually wound through the courts for 14 years before being heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Those justices upheld the $244,000 defamation award against the Union in 1987.

Asked why he stuck with the case for so long, Caruso explained the logic handed down by his father.

“You have to understand that my life was threatened. My employees’ lives were threatened,” Caruso said. “My dad told me when I was a little kid, ‘Bobby, when you are right, you can face God, the devil or man. If you roll over and you don’t take a stand, you will hate yourself forever.’ “

A decade of golf and travel didn’t actually turn out to be as much fun as it first sounded. So Caruso enrolled at Gonzaga University School of Law and became a lawyer.

His first case started when a young, crying mother came to his office seeking help in trying to get custody back of a 14-month-old child. She earlier had given up her rights to the child and was about to have a second baby when she changed her mind.

“I was able to persuade a judge to give the baby back to the original mother,” Caruso said.

Once the decision came in, Caruso called the young mother and told her she could go pick up her child. “I cried for three days. It felt so good to see that baby reunited with that mother,” Caruso said. “It’s something I will never forget.”

For his part, Reierson argued that his extensive experience, which includes some defense work in the military and for a public defender in Seattle, makes him the clear choice.

“It’s basically a career type of work,” he said. “I don’t think there is time for somebody to be learning on the job.”

Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas said Reierson has a “breadth” of experience. Asked if Reierson would do a good job as the prosecutor in Spokane County, Douglas – who also acknowledged that he is a friend of Tucker’s – said: “That’s something for the taxpayers there to decide. (Reierson) is a good, competent, dedicated prosecuting attorney who has done a lot for this community.”

One thing Reierson is not afraid to do is criticize Tucker, especially with his decision not to charge a Spokane firefighter who took digital photographs of a 16-year-old girl he was having sex with inside a fire station, or Tucker’s repeated delays in deciding possible charges in connection with the March 18 fatal encounter between seven Spokane police officers and 36-year-old mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm.

“With (Tucker’s) background as a law enforcement officer, is that an impediment to him doing his job? I think it is,” Reierson said of the former Washington State Patrol trooper. “Is he divorcing himself from the brotherhood of law enforcement? He’s doing anything he can to avoid making a difficult decision.”

Tucker, in an interview earlier this month, said he did not want to talk about the election but acknowledged that his past creates perception problems.

“I’ve got police experience, which I think most people would say, ‘That’s good.’ I can kind of understand what the police felt like and what they were doing in the situation” with Zehm, he said. “But on the other hand … the other half is going, ‘He’s going to back up police because he was one.’ “

Reierson also criticized Tucker for making, by his count, only a handful of public appearances in eight years as prosecutor. Reierson argued that Tucker should have publicly taken charge of the Zehm investigation from the beginning.

“It’s his job to make decisions. How many police-involved deaths does Spokane have? Why is this guy out of public view?” Reierson asked. “He’s getting paid $115,000 a year. We have a part-time prosecutor for full-time pay.”

Tucker said he helped his deputy prosecutors in two first-degree murder cases last year and oversees 75 attorneys and 145 employees. “My days are pretty full, actually,” he said.

Caruso agrees with Reierson, saying Tucker’s inaction prompted him to run.

“I’m ashamed of what is going on, and I’m outraged as a citizen. Somebody has to do something,” he said. “Spokane has to emerge from this election with a prosecutor and prosecuting attorney’s office that is responsive to the community, visible to the community and has the ability to meet with the community. They want a change, and nobody will step up to the plate.”

While Reierson answered that call, Caruso labeled him a career public employee who is seeking to boost his retirement.

“He’s an opportunist,” Caruso said. “Up until one week (before the filing deadline) he was running for judge.”

At 68, Caruso acknowledged that some voters will question whether his age will be a factor.

“Just because there is snow on the roof doesn’t mean the fire in the furnace has gone out,” he said. “You’ve got to stand up for what you believe no matter what the cost. I believe Spokane can be a better place if we get a different prosecutor in there. And I’m the man for the job.”


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