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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

YWCA Women of Achievement Awards: U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref ‘has overachieved at every level’

U.S. Attorney Vanessa Waldref has been named a woman of achievement by the YWCA.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

Vanessa Waldref, the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, has used her position to go after perpetrators of fraud, drug trafficking and violent crime. Her work is being honored with the YWCA Women of Achievement Government and Public Service award.

Her chief deputy, Richard Barker, nominated Waldref for the award.

“Vanessa has overcome so many different challenges,” he said. “She has just overachieved at every level.”

She could have pursued a lucrative career in private practice, but Barker said she instead wanted a chance to serve.

“In every part of her life, she wants to give back,” he said.

She has focused on elder abuse, fraud and violent crime on Native American reservations, where the federal government is in charge of prosecuting all felonies, Barker said. U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president of the United States, and it’s not unusual for them to be replaced each time a new president is elected. Waldref was appointed to her position by President Joe Biden.

“She’s expanded the profile of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to show how the federal government can help communities,” Barker said. “She recognizes she only has so much time in the role and she’s trying to make the most of it.”

Waldref grew up on Spokane’s north side, attending St. Patrick’s Elementary School. She graduated from Gonzaga Prep as valedictorian and won a scholarship to Georgetown University specifically for valedictorians of Jesuit high schools. It was the same scholarship that her older sister Amber had won three years previously, so the sisters spent a year of their college experience at Georgetown together.

Waldref said she was always interested in politics and policy and wanted to find out what she could do to make a difference in the world. She loved the social justice classes she signed up for and was active in various student organizations that advocated for fair labor practices and against sweatshops.

She saw her choice as either becoming an organizer or becoming a lawyer to fight against inequities. After she graduated with a degree in sociology, she spent a year in Seattle working for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It was there that she worked primarily in educating people about their rights and what they could do to be a voice for themselves.

“I think that job is the most similar to the U.S. attorney job,” she said. “That was really the deciding force. I knew I wanted to go to law school and use law to help people.”

She went back to the Washington, D.C., area and did immigration legal and policy work for a couple years before enrolling in Georgetown Law. She said it was a wonderful experience, and the location of the law school gave her the opportunity to occasionally head over to the U.S. Supreme Court and listen to arguments.

“It’s literally blocks away from the Supreme Court,” she said.

She clerked for Judge John Bates in D.C. District Court before moving back to Spokane to raise her growing family. She said Bates had previously been an assistant U.S. attorney and sparked the desire in her to hold the same position one day, adding that she got to witness a high level of quality work among the assistant U.S. attorneys.

“It’s such an amazing way to represent your country,” she said.

After arriving in Spokane, she worked for the law firms Lukins & Annis . She primarily worked on labor and employment, trade secrets and environmental cases. She worked as an Eastern District assistant U.S. attorney for seven years before traveling around the country as a trial attorney with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

However, her goal was still to become a U.S. attorney, so after Biden was elected, she applied for the position. After all applications are submitted, it’s up to each state’s senators to recommend a candidate for the position. Once the president accepts a recommendation, each candidate for U.S. attorney must be confirmed by Congress.

Waldref said her goal has been to create an office focused on community engagement and one that partners with local law enforcement. She has worked to increase the focus and availability of prosecutors serving the local Tribal communities. She also has one prosecutor dedicated to working on cases involving missing and endangered Indigenous people.

“It’s really a critical area for us to be present,” she said.

Waldref has also overseen one of the most active COVID fraud strike forces in the country, getting over a dozen indictments in the last two years involving companies or individuals who fraudulently received COVID relief funds intended to keep businesses afloat during the pandemic.

“There was a need to push money out quickly, and people took advantage of that,” she said.

Waldref said she appreciates the critical work the YWCA does in providing help to victims of domestic violence and is honored to receive a Women of Achievement award from the organization. She said in recent years she has enjoyed attending the luncheon held to honor each year’s award winners and has always come away moved by the stories told at the event.

“It gives me so much hope about the great work people are doing,” she said.

Barker said Waldref deserves to be among those honored with the award.

“She’s giving, she’s caring, she’s very kind,” he said. “She looks for ways to help others, and that permeates everything she does.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected on March 18, 2024 to correct the spelling of last name of Richard Barker and correct the name of the law firm Lukins & Annis