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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

At press conference, Haskell defends his role as prosecutor amid wife’s racist social media scandal

Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell holds a news conference earlier this year at the Public Safety Building to address fallout from his wife’s racist comments on social media.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Adam Shanks and Garrett Cabeza The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County’s embattled prosecutor defended the integrity of his office Friday after concerns mounted over his wife’s racist social media posts, but some legal experts say the damage may already be done.

Larry Haskell held a news conference to defend his and his deputy attorneys’ records through his nearly eight-year tenure. It was a direct response to a Seattle Times article this week in which legal experts suggested his wife’s racist online writings could call the fairness of his office into question.

Haskell, who said he does not share his wife’s views, welcomed any independent investigation or audit of his office.

“Bring it,” Haskell said. “We can withstand the light of day.”

He also proposed a pledge committing signatories not to disparage anyone based on stereotypes when discussing of the criminal justice system. He invited people in leadership positions and members of community groups who are against racism to sign it.

The Seattle Times followed a story in The Inlander that detailed how Haskell’s wife, Lesley, described herself as a “proud white nationalist” and used racial slurs in social media posts.

On Friday, Haskell acknowledged that his wife’s posts were racist but said he does not believe she is a racist. He called her comments “racist and reprehensible,” acknowledged the pain and damage they caused, but remained adamant they don’t reflect his views or his office’s approach to enforcing the law.

“Now it’s being alleged that because of some comments that were made by my wife, that somehow this has become endemic in the process of the local criminal justice system. I refute that claim,” said Haskel, who is seeking a third term in office.

Throughout a roughly 30-minute news conference, hastily arranged with little more than an hour’s notice to reporters, Haskell portrayed his office as just one component of a criminal justice system that insists on fairness and impartiality. He argued that his office adheres to the Constitution and law, and said no proof has been presented otherwise.

He accused the media of building a “false narrative” that he carries out his wife’s views in his role as a prosecutor.

“There’s now an allegation that my office of over 150 employees is complicit in racist behavior. This could not be further from the truth,” Haskell said.

Andrea George, executive director of Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, said the statements by Haskell’s wife are “reprehensible,” and she has concerns that Haskell shares those beliefs.

“I don’t know how the community can ever trust that he is an objective decision maker of people’s lives when his wife has used such despicable terms to describe the human beings that he’s supposedly prosecuting fairly,” George said. “Whether he feels that way or not, I mean, it is the community perception of that office, and it’s vitally important that the community trust that that office is objective and fair.”

Dennis Hession, a private Spokane attorney, former Spokane mayor and former Spokane City Council president, said Haskell is subject to being guilty by association even though he didn’t make the racist comments.

“I think that this idea of associating with people that are so cavalier about it would speak about his character,” Hession said.

Chris Bugbee, a private Spokane defense attorney, said he doesn’t believe the comments made by Haskell’s wife are Haskell’s views.

“I do not believe that Larry Haskell is racist,” Bugbee said. “It’s an unfortunate position for him to be in, frankly, because it’s a little hard to distance yourself from those types of comments.”

Bugbee served as a deputy prosecutor in the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office for six years and ran unsuccessfully for the county prosecutor seat against Steve Tucker in 2010.

Bugbee said there’s no inherent racism in the county prosecutor’s office based on his professional experience and working closely with deputy prosecutors and other employees in the office.

He said Haskell is qualified for his position in terms of his character, his ability as an attorney and professional standing, but the position also requires trust from the public, and that’s up for consideration. Bugbee said it will be tough for Haskell to decide whether to continue as prosecutor because the community has to trust its elected officials.

“You want to be true to people you love, but he’s got a responsibility to the public as well ,” he said.

Jim McDevitt, former U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, said Haskell is not compromised.

McDevitt designated Haskell as special assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office during his tenure and described Haskell as ethical and fair.

He said he doesn’t believe Haskell shares the views of his wife.

“He’s never conducted himself that way,” McDevitt said.

He said it’s “idiotic” to believe the comments from Haskell’s wife affect the manner in which he prosecutes cases. Just look at Haskell’s record, McDevitt said.

On Friday, Haskell addressed persistent racial disparities in the Spokane County Jail, which were highlighted in a Spokesman-Review column earlier this month. A 2017 analysis found that Spokane jails Black people at a rate 13 times higher than white people, and Native Americans 6.5 times higher than whites.

Haskell said some people are in jail for a variety of reasons, such as committing a crime while out on bond, but said race or ethnicity is not a factor. He also noted that disparities existed before he took office.

“That analysis of the disparities is really only a number until you dig deeper,” Haskell said.

Jeffry Finer, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney and professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, said Haskell is probably politically compromised, but noted he doesn’t truly know how it will affect his bid for reelection.

He said Haskell should let one of his deputy prosecutors take his position, not because of his wife’s “shameful” comments, but because he is “stuffing” jails and courts and “charging everything that moves.”

“It’s really time to let that office open up to new thinking,” Finer said. “His thinking hasn’t changed, and we are going down the tubes.”

Local judges have recognized the courts’ role in perpetuating racial injustice.

In 2020, in the weeks after the killing of George Floyd, the judges of Spokane County Superior Court released a joint statement acknowledging “shortcomings that have resulted in systemic racial injustice against Black Americans and Black citizens of our state and county. It is with candid honesty that we recognize the role that the courts have played in these injustices.”

“We do not claim to possess immediate answers to longstanding questions,” the court said. “We do, however, pledge to listen better, do better and be better, when and where we can, to eradicate racism and establish systemic reforms in our justice system.”

Over the years, Haskell and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich have discussed Lesley’s use of Facebook, according to Knezovich.

“We have done everything we can to dissuade her from using that platform,” Knezovich said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review earlier this week.

Haskell doesn’t believe anything related to those comments, Knezovich said.

“He condemned the comments,” Knezovich said. “So I don’t know what more he could have done.”

Spokesman-Review reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story