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Trump administration lags behind in appointing U.S. Attorneys for Washington

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, left, and former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, right, join the members of the public for the CompStat meeting on Feb. 17, 2016, at the Fire Training Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, left, and former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt, right, join the members of the public for the CompStat meeting on Feb. 17, 2016, at the Fire Training Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eight months after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked 46 U.S. Attorneys to resign, Washington still has not had anyone nominated to fill its two top federal prosecutor positions.

The U.S. Senate in September confirmed both Bart Davis as U.S. Attorney for Idaho and Kurt Alme as the U.S. Attorney for Montana. But no nominations have come for either the Eastern or Western districts of Washington.

Asked if he expects a nomination soon for the federal prosecutor in Spokane, former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt replied: “I would hope so. But, I have no idea. I’m not in control of the timeline. I just answer the phone calls.”

McDevitt confirmed that he has had conversations with officials in Washington, D.C., about potential candidates, but he would not discuss the nature of those talks.

“They typically reach out to folks who they have relationships with,” McDevitt said.

The two most prominent names of potential candidates are Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who previously confirmed that he applied for the position, and Spokane County District Court Judge Vance Peterson.

“I got a letter from Jeff Session’s office thanking me for the application and that they are actively engaged in filling the position and that they would let me know,” Peterson said.

However, the judge said he has not been contacted by the FBI, which conducts the background checks on potential candidates.

“I don’t know if they are looking at me,” he said. “I certainly haven’t heard anything.”

He noted that the longer the process takes, the more complicated the situation becomes for the potential candidates. Both Peterson and Haskell, who did not return phone messages this week seeking comment, must declare this spring for upcoming elections to retain their current positions.

“Obviously the guy doing it now (Acting U.S. Attorney Joe Harrington) is extremely qualified,” Peterson said. “The district is in good hands. But, they need to put a face on it. That’s the one who either gets kissed or hit.”

As of Friday, more than 40 U.S. attorney positions remained unfilled by President Donald Trump.

The appointments are key for promoting the U.S. Department of Justice’s initiatives. Most past administrations already would have forwarded names for Senate approval.

However, it took until March 3, 2010, for former President Barrack Obama to nominate current City Attorney Mike Ormsby. He didn’t take office until Oct. 1, 2010 following Obama’s 2008 election.

While the choice of Ormsby took longer to make, Obama kept McDevitt, the previous U.S. Attorney, in place until Ormsby was confirmed.

In contrast, Trump fired Ormsby and 45 other U.S. Attorneys on the same day in March, which left the void that has yet to be filled.

“It is taking longer than usual,” former U.S. Attorney John Lamp said. “In my case, I was on board the second of October following the year of the election.”

However, Lamp, 74, who is now retired, said the nominations follow a tremendous amount work. Lamp served from 1981 to 1991 and was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

“It’s a long process,” he said. “The biggest hold up is the FBI background checks. It’s extremely thorough. They talk to every attorney you ever had a case against and every judge you went before. So, it’s a darn long process.”

Lamp knows both Peterson and Haskell.

“They are both fine people. I worked with Larry and I’ve known Vance for years,” he said. “A lot depends on their credentials. Their party affiliation is somewhat significant but it’s not always controlling. I think either one would make a fine U.S. Attorney.”

McDevitt, who was nominated by former President George W. Bush, said he doesn’t think that having two Democratic Senators in the state would cause a delay in the approval process.

“It varies from district to district. The reality of it is it’s the president’s call,” McDevitt said. “In my case, once my name went forward the staffs of both Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell said, ‘We are happy to have you on board. How can we help you along?’”

Lamp, 74, of Liberty Lake, said he fondly remembers his time as a federal prosecutor.

“It was the best job I ever had,” he said. “I got involved in some of the Justice Department matters and initiatives and had a few of my own. You can kind of make it what you want.”

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