State Politics

Gangs, drugs & supporting police are top priorities for Idaho’s newest top prosecutor

United State Attorney Bart Davis has begun his new job after being appointed to the position earlier this year. Davis served in the Idaho Senate for 16 years.
United State Attorney Bart Davis has begun his new job after being appointed to the position earlier this year. Davis served in the Idaho Senate for 16 years.

Bart Davis has spent his entire adult life enforcing, defending and making laws. He also understands what it means to be a victim.

The attorney and 10-term senator lost his 23-year-old son, Cameron, in a shooting in Boise in 2003.

The 62-year-old, who in September was sworn in as Idaho’s newest U.S. attorney, has three professional goals: reducing the crime rate, stopping organized crime and supporting law enforcement.

His 19 years of experience in the Legislature — most of that as Senate majority leader — will inform his work as Idaho’s top federal prosecutor. So will the experience of his son’s death. Starting as a mourning parent navigating the court system, Davis over the years eventually formed a bond with the parents of his son’s killer. In 2013, Davis provided key testimony that led to that man’s parole.

“I know what it’s like to be the victim of a crime,” he said. “I know what it’s like and I want as much as possible to alleviate the kind of hard, difficult feelings that a person has (as a victim).”

Organized crime and ‘backing the blue’

Davis’ goals aren’t his alone — they align with those of Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C.

“Almost everything they say falls into one of those three categories,” Davis said.

He sees a variety of targets within their umbrella, including issues of national security, violent crimes, enforcing immigration laws and addressing the opioid crisis.

The first major indictments announced under his tenure focused on organized crime. Last month, Davis’ office alleged 20 Sureno Mob Trece street gang members and associates were involved in drug trafficking, firearms trafficking and acts of violence. The investigation into the gang began under Davis’ predecessor, Wendy Olson, and in many ways the focus on gangs and drug activity continues priorities established by the previous administration.

The nationwide crime rate rose by 3.4 percent in 2016 and 3.3 percent in 2015, according to the Department of Justice — the largest single-year increases since 1991. Idaho has seen much smaller change, however, according to statistics maintained by the Idaho State Police. This state’s crime rate rose by roughly 1 percent in each of those years, following declines of about 2 percent a year in 2014 and 2013.

Davis said one key to taking down large-scale crime means working with all law enforcement agencies in the state. He believes he has a good starting point in his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee, through which he tackled problems like narcotics and Idaho’s sex offender registry.

He speaks now of a commitment to “back the blue” — supporting law enforcement officers who are facing attacks, and remaining dedicated to combating crimes against those agencies.

“Anytime you can strengthen those partnerships, that’s what we want to do to get a full-force multiplier out of that,” he said. “My responsibility is to partner with these organizations, these capable professionals — most of whom I already know. I bring with me that relationship and high regard into this office.”

Davis stressed, however, that he will not ignore incidents of public corruption or abuse of power. Those have historically been, and continue to be, a priority in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“When I am talking about backing the blue, I am talking about backing legitimate, law-abiding law enforcement,” he said.

A deadly epidemic

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a speech Tuesday outlined “astounding” drug overdose death rates, describing the need for the criminal justice system to stem abuse of fentanyl and other drugs.

“At the Department of Justice, we use every tool at our disposal to stop the rise in violence and to end the drug crisis,” Rosenstein told those gathered for the 50 State Summit on Public Safety in Washington, D.C. “I know some of you work to find solutions to crime apart from prosecution and incarceration. That is a worthy goal.”

In 2015, 218 Idahoans died from overdoses, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 60 percent of the deaths were attributed to prescription painkillers and other opioids — and experts say the full brunt of the opioid epidemic has not yet reached this state.

The Justice Department, Davis said, has made it clear that the opioid crisis is a deadly threat in need of being addressed by prosecutors. But about 85 percent of law enforcement operates at a city and county level, he said, again emphasizing the need for partnerships as a tool.

“Our role as a U.S. Attorney’s Office is to work with (local agencies) and facility with them where we can play a more significant part,” Davis said.

One example: The government has established High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas across the country where federal, state and local law enforcement coordinate efforts to stop trafficking and money laundering. The program in Idaho includes Ada and Canyon counties.

Davis hopes those counties can then tell his office “Who are the bad guys that we need to be targeting?” and “What criminal enterprise do we need to be dismantling?”

It is still unclear if Idaho will receive any additional funding from Congress to put toward opioid prosecution. Davis believes he can make his office’s current funds work.

“We have the resources to make it happen,” Davis said. “It is too important of a priority for us as an office to not make the resources available. We can do it. We have the personnel to do it and do it now.”

A new federal perspective on familiar issues

Davis plans to continue a focus on hate crimes.

At the federal level, those include one category not found in state statute. Under the Obama administration, Congress updated hate crime law to include a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation. That law was used early this year to charge one man, Kelly Schneider, convicted of luring a gay man into a trap and brutally beating him to death in Canyon County in 2016.

Davis said he supports the changes made by the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It’s not a prosecutor’s job to decide what laws to enforce, he said — rather, to go by what the existing law states.

“We are talking about a human being,” he said. “This isn’t anything other than providing the lawful rights that Congress has set. We’re going to enforce them.”

Davis has also watched U.S. prosecutors in other states struggle with recent cases involving the Western militia movement — particularly regarding the Bundy family, members of whom were involved in a 2014 standoff with Bureau of Land Management officers in Nevada and took over Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016.

After a series of deadlocked juries and acquittals, it has become clear that finding convictions in those cases remains a challenge.

In the performance of this duty, I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. I am the United States attorney for the District of Idaho and it’s my responsibility to enforce these laws.

Bart Davis, a longtime GOP lawmaker, on his new role

While Davis said he would not speak to the Bundys’ cases, he said he plans to enforce existing laws — regardless of how Idahoans feel about the legitimacy of some militia actions.

“What may be subversive to one is trying to be a patriot to another,” Davis said.

“… I’m looking at the act itself and if there has been a violation of the statute then our office will engage and what we do with that will depend on what actually happened. And we will use our best judgment on how to move forward.”

A history of public service

Davis worked as an attorney in private practice for more than 36 years in Idaho Falls. He has a law degree from the University of Idaho. He and his wife, Marion, had six children. Meanwhile, he built strong relationships at the Statehouse.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is in his ninth term, and consistently served alongside Davis in the Legislature.

“He’s the glue,” Hill said last month about Davis’ leadership in the Senate. “He’s the glue that holds us all together so we’re all on the same page, or at least in the same book.”

He described Davis as a “leveling force in keeping us focused on the issues and moving forward.”

Hill believes Davis’ experience with Idaho law and policy will serve Davis well in his new job.

So does Davis’ immediate predecessor, Wendy Olson, who is now a partner at Stoel Rives LLP in Boise.

She said she expects Davis “will be an outstanding U.S. attorney,” and hopes improving civil rights — a passion of hers — will continue to be a focus of the office.

“He’s a bright guy who knows Idaho well,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges (as U.S. attorney) is making the federal government work in Idaho.”

Davis said living through the civil rights movement and related political events in the 1960s and ’70s led him to seek civic engagement and become involved in public office. He said he aspired to be worthy of the title “Senator Davis.”

“Generationally, a lot of people from that time period felt a need to contribute, to serve, to be involved,” Davis said.

“… I think a lot of people want to do something but perhaps aren’t in a position to do it.”