Combatting violent crime, the illicit opioid trade and health care fraud in the 20 counties making up the Eastern District of Washington will be among the priorities of Vanessa Waldref’s tenure as the new U.S. Attorney for the region.
The veteran of the office said she believes her staff of 28 attorneys and 60 support workers will be up to the challenge, and it’s her job to make sure the right person tackles each job.
“I have very strong connections with them as individuals,” Waldref said. “But also a good understanding of their skills and talents, and I want to do everything in my power to help them continue to grow and develop.”
Waldref cited the work of Dan Fruchter and Tyler Tornabene, two assistant attorneys who have built up a resume of fraud prosecutions in the district, as prepared to tackle health care fraud in the district. That includes collecting nearly $300 million in penalties since 2016 under the False Claims Act, the federal law the office is citing in their claim of damages against a Central Washington wheat farmer accused of crop insurance fraud, and in past actions against federal subcontractors at the Hanford clean-up site.
“A growth area in our office, both because of the incredible need in our community and also the expertise of our attorneys, is turning their attention to health care fraud, and elder abuse, and areas that are protecting our community’s most vulnerable,” Waldref said.
The office also will continue its emphasis on prosecuting dealers of illicit opioid drugs, specifically fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that has become increasingly common in Spokane and North Idaho , Waldref said. The new U.S. attorney said she agreed with her predecessor, Bill Hyslop, who spent much of his second tenure in the office warning of the availability and danger of the drugs.
“I really agree with Bill on that front,” Waldref said. “What we can do is go after the largest sources of fentanyl and try to take the biggest, most impactful cases.
“But in addition to doing that, we’ve got to be doing community outreach to try to deter and disrupt these criminal networks that are bringing in huge amounts of these dangerous drugs and preying on victims and at-risk people in our community,” she continued.
Waldref credited the work of Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Van Marter on the opioid drug trade in the office to date.
Waldref starts her leadership role in the office following a yearlong stint as a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s Environment & Natural Resources Division. In her role as the U.S. attorney for the district, Waldref said she believed the federal government had a duty to protect its natural resources, particularly in Eastern Washington.
“Our role, in all of those cases, is to ensure that the government is getting it right,” she said.
That perspective also will guide Waldref’s approach to marijuana cases. Though the drug is legal to sell under state law, it remains a federal controlled substance. The Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations had different approaches to enforcement of the federal law, but the office has in recent years avoided a large-scale prosecution in line with the controversial “Kettle Falls Five” case filed in 2012.
“Drug prosecutions are definitely more focused on opioids,” Waldref said.
The office will focus on drug cases where there’s potential damage to public lands, including illegal grows in forests and reservation land, she said.
“It really trashes our shared resources, the national forests and leaves devastating chemicals and pipes throughout the whole forest,” she said. “It makes the whole forest less safe for everyone to be able to enjoy.”
Waldref said she also wants to be more open about the operations of her office and work in the community to highlight what her staff is doing.
“An area that I really want to dedicate my time and energy to is ensuring that the community knows of the critical work that our office does,” she said.
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