New Idaho U.S. Attorney Bart Davis says there’s no role for him or his office in the continuing legal clashes over the 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada, though Idaho state lawmakers have been highly critical of how four Idaho residents have been treated.
Fifty-three current and former Idaho GOP state lawmakers signed on to a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Aug. 29 criticizing federal prosecutors’ handling of the case; 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador weighed in with similar concerns last month.
Davis, who spent the past 15 years serving as the Idaho Senate’s GOP majority leader, said he won’t be weighing in.
“We will not have any involvement at all,” Davis said in his first extended interview since taking the position in late September. “We are not going to look over the shoulder of those career prosecutors in another district and tell them how we think they should or should not be handling those matters.”
Two of the four Idaho men, Eric Parker and Scott Drexler, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges on Monday to avoid a third trial, after juries twice deadlocked on weapons and assault charges against them. Parker was famously photographed aiming his high-powered rifle toward federal agents near the Bundy Ranch.
With the other two, Ammon Bundy goes to trial on Monday, and Todd Engel is awaiting sentencing on convictions of obstruction of justice and interstate travel to aid extortion.
“The U.S. attorney for the district of Idaho has no role in that,” Davis said.
Davis, known for his lawyerly speeches in the Senate, said he’s left politics and moved into a different arena.
“Politics is a less-than-civilized arena,” he said. “Politics in some ways can be the equivalent of coliseum-style spitting, where we like to impute on others motives that may not be accurate – because it’s easier for some to disagree by making the disagreement ad hominem.
“I hope that one thing that I will be remembered for is trying to accommodate differences in points of view in as civil a way as you can,” he said. “I was really fortunate to serve with a lot of folks that, when given the choice of picking apart issues rather than picking apart people, wanted to pick apart issues.”
After taking the oath of office on Sept. 21 and starting work the next day, Davis said his top priority, at least for now, is “I have to learn this job.”
“Over at the Capitol, we went to lunch, had an idea – we’d go back and get a bill written up,” he said. “But here I don’t get to set the policy. That policy is set by others.”
Davis said he’s not planning any major changes in the office in the near future. “We have a spot or two that we need to fill,” he said, including an assistant U.S. attorney position in Coeur d’Alene that’s been vacant since an August retirement. “We do intend to fill that,” he said. “We’ve begun that process, and hope to be able to get that done shortly.”
Davis had high praise for the state’s first assistant U.S. attorney, Rafael Gonzalez, who filled in on an interim basis after previous U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson stepped down in February to make way for a Trump administration appointee.
“He did a great job, he really did,” Davis said. “The state of Idaho was very well-served by his leadership.”
He added, “He’s got me on a crash course to learn the job,” including reading “all these white binders.”
Drug trafficking is among the biggest issues the office faces in Idaho, Davis said. Last week, Davis held a news conference to announce a series of indictments in state and federal court against a new offshoot of the street and prison gang Surenos; the drug, firearms and gang recruitment charges against individuals in the Nampa, Idaho, area are expected to eradicate the new gang offshoot.
“This is an area of great concern in our state, and we will continue to be involved and engaged in it,” Davis said.
Though there’s been much national speculation about changes in federal sentencing since Sessions in May released a memorandum reversing some Obama-era sentencing reforms aimed at drug cases, Davis said, “This office historically has always been an office that used good prosecutorial judgment, and prosecuted for crimes that it believed it could prosecute and be successful with. So for this office, it does not appear that it is a major change in its approach.”
Davis, an attorney from Idaho Falls, said he was impressed when he interviewed for the job back in May, meeting with Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, in Sessions’ private conference room at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
“I had the attorney general to my right, the deputy attorney general to my left,” Davis said. “As just an old country lawyer from Idaho Falls, that was a big deal to me. I found the two of them to be matter of fact, to the point. They had a series of questions that they wanted answered, and yet it was extremely gracious, and it was a rewarding experience.”
Davis said he’s been reading all their memos closely. “I have a responsibility to know what the policies are that they want to have us emphasize and enforce,” he said.
The longtime state senator said he and his wife purchased a home in Boise about 10 to 12 years ago; they’ll still keep their home in Idaho Falls. “We’ll plan to return as often as the schedule allows,” he said. “I’ve moved over maybe a couple more suits.
“I loved serving in the state Senate,” Davis said. “I served with three great governors, I served with some remarkable people in House and Senate leadership in both parties, and those friendships for me were not convenient – they are wonderful, dear people.”
On balance, he said, “I did a few things right, I did a few things wrong. But I think I left a more thoughtful and better legislator than I was when I arrived.”
Olson, who preceded Davis in the post, said, “I think the fact that he knows Idaho well and has been involved in state government will serve him well as U.S. attorney, because he knows the state. And I think he’ll be able to quickly adapt on that front.”
In his new role, Davis will need to build on existing relationships with law enforcement agencies throughout the state, with the state’s five recognized Native American tribes, and with the federal courts and other federal, state and local agencies.
“I think he’s inheriting a great office and people who are committed to working for the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney’s office, regardless of who sits in the U.S. attorney’s seat,” Olson said. “I think those people will continue to serve him well, and most importantly serve the country well, because that’s really their job.”
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