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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Departing two-time U.S. Attorney William Hyslop vows to keep fighting illicit drugs as he leaves office

William Hyslop, the most recent U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, stands in front of the United States Courthouse in this March 2021 photo. Hyslop, who served two terms as top federal prosecutor in the district under different Republican presidents, died Sunday at age 71.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Just as it was in 1993, William Hyslop expects his next act after working as U.S. attorney will be serving Spokane.

“I’m going to put my white shirts and my ties closer to the back of my closet,” Hyslop, who turns 70 this month, said in an interview last week. “But I’m not stepping back from community service.”

Hyslop’s second run as the Justice Department’s voice east of the Cascades ended Sunday, as the Joe Biden administration looks to appoint its own U.S. attorney in the coming weeks. The role was one Hyslop didn’t expect, after his appointment by President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993.

“When I left, I never imagined that I’d be serving again,” Hyslop said.

This term was about as long as his two-year appointment in October 1991. President Donald Trump didn’t forward Hyslop’s name as his nominee to run the office until May 2019, more than two years after the president took office. Hyslop was confirmed by the U.S. Senate for his first stint after John E. Lamp stepped down and served until September 1993.

Hyslop, the former longtime litigator and principal at Lukins & Annis, is stepping down just as he was in the process of launching a public information campaign targeting illicit painkillers, in partnership with KSPS-TV and others in the community.

That’s the work he hopes to return to, after spending time with his wife, two children and three grandchildren.

“To prosecute is to react to an actual crime that’s being committed,” Hyslop said. “To the extent that we can prevent death from overdoses by being proactive, the extent that we have the resources to do that, I’ve certainly spent a bunch of my time addressing that.”

Once appointed, U.S. attorneys have some latitude in determining priorities for their offices, Hyslop said. In the early 1990s, Hylsop found himself battling production and distribution of methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

During his second term, it became clear the emergence of illegal drugs that mimic the appearance of legitimate painkillers, specifically fentanyl, is evidence of a shift on the streets.

“Criminals know that if they get caught, they will be doing significant time,” he said. “So, sure, they can be more crafty, more secretive. If they can sell more before they get caught, they’re going to do that.”

Jim McDevitt, who served as U.S. attorney for the district from 2001 to 2010, said the job comes with some additional autonomy because of its distance from major metropolitan areas and the media attention that comes with it.

“That’s what you kind of have the freedom to do, as a U.S. attorney. You can ask, ‘What is eating my district’s lunch, and how do I deal with it?’” McDevitt said.

That’s not to say the work of Hyslop’s office didn’t achieve national and international attention. Last July, the office announced it had indicted two Chinese nationals who had attempted to hack into systems at the Hanford nuclear site. It’s believed the hackers also targeted information related to the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

McDevitt, who served as head of the Spokane Police Department for several months in 2016 as the agency looked for a new chief, praised Hyslop’s decision to make the illegal drug trade, and specifically fentanyl, a priority.

“At one point in time, we had three fentanyl deaths in a 36-hour period,” McDevitt said.

Enforcement and health statistics show that problem continues to grow. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported late last year synthetic painkillers contributed to the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the United States for a 12-month period ending in May 2020, and Hyslop said the Drug Enforcement Agency reported a 187% increase in seizures of fentanyl in 2020 compared to the year prior.

The DEA’s national report on the threats posed by drugs in the United States, released Tuesday, said illicit fentanyl is “primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis.”

Hyslop’s pledge last week to remain in public service to combat the drug problem isn’t without precedent. After his first term ended in 1993, he returned to work in the community where he grew up , as a Shadle Park High School, Washington State University and Gonzaga Law School graduate.

That included becoming involved in the effort to form the Public Facilities District and build the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena to replace the old Spokane Coliseum.

“I remember when Andy Williams was here, and this goes way back,” Hyslop said. “He said ‘This place is like Jackie Gleason’s stomach.’ ”

He also served as co-chair of the community effort to remodel Lewis and Clark High School, and following the prosecution of former Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson in the death of Otto Zehm, served as vice chair of the Use of Force Commission formed to offer recommendations on changes to police training and tactics.

Hyslop said the experience ingrained in him the belief in the professionalism of the overwhelming majority of law enforcement.

“There are situations, but that should not label a department at all,” Hyslop said, noting he believed Thompson was “appropriately convicted” for his crimes.

For his first appointment, Hyslop was nominated by U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, whom Hyslop had known during his time working for the state Republican Party and as a member of Gorton’s state advisory committee. After Trump’s election in 2016, Hyslop had to make a choice to leave “a thriving private practice,” but eventually sought a return to office at the urging of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and others, he said.

Eventually, Hyslop met with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Hyslop knew from Sessions’ time as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. By the time Hyslop’s nomination was up for a vote in summer 2019, the head of the Justice Department was Attorney General William Barr, who’d previously held that position under President George H.W. Bush, just as Hyslop had served as a U.S. attorney during Bush’s administration.

The U.S. attorney is appointed by the president, and Hyslop responded immediately last month when the Biden administration requested the appointees step down. Hyslop called the rare opportunity to serve in the position twice “an honor,” even though he’s not yet done with public service. He said he set two goals when he was confirmed to lead the office again two years ago: promote faith in the justice system and support the work of local law enforcement and the attorneys in the office.

Though the job is a political appointment, Hyslop acknowledged, those goals aren’t about politics. That includes a continued effort to fight the illegal drug trade.

“I certainly have every expectation the Biden administration will, as well,” Hyslop said. “Because it’s going to get worse before it gets better, particularly in Eastern Washington.”