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New US attorney for Idaho: civil rights front and center

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Idaho’s new top federal prosecutor says civil rights and hate crime enforcement are top-of-mind for federal prosecutors both in Idaho and nationwide.

BOISE, Idaho —

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

Idaho’s new top federal prosecutor says civil rights and hate crime enforcement are top-of-mind for federal prosecutors both in Idaho and nationwide.

“It’s always been important,” Josh Hurwit told the Idaho Press in an interview this week. “But with the rise in hate incidents that we’ve seen really starting in the pandemic, and now continuing with various groups in Idaho and around the country, obviously the tragic shooting in Buffalo put this front and center.” 

He declined to say whether his office is looking into the recent incident in Coeur d’Alene in which 31 members of the white nationalist Patriot Front were arrested and charged with conspiracy to riot as, packed in the back of a U-Haul truck, they headed to disrupt a Pride in the Park event in a local city park. 

“Under our policy, I can’t answer that question,” Hurwit said. “I can’t confirm or deny whether there’s a federal investigation.” 

“But I can say, and I want to say, that we are fully committed to protecting the civil rights of all Idahoans and enforcing the rule of law through the prosecution of hate crimes when that’s appropriate,” he said. 

Hurwit has been an assistant United States attorney in Idaho since 2012, serving under both previous U.S. attorneys, Wendy Olson and Bart Davis. He counts both as mentors. He’s taken a lead role in prosecuting the Aryan Knights white supremacist prison gang in Idaho, along with securities fraud prosecutions, environmental litigation, public corruption and firearms offenses. 

“I think it’s important to also say that one of our jobs is to protect First Amendment expression,” Hurwit said. “Beliefs in and of themselves are not crimes. I want to be clear. When we discuss this as an office, when we investigate and we prosecute violent extremists, what we are investigating and prosecuting is the criminal conduct, violence most likely, and not their beliefs or ideology, however abhorrent that is.” 

He noted he grew up Oregon. 

“I was aware as a kid of the Aryan Nations,” Hurwit said. “And I’ve been prosecuting the Aryan Knights case. … So I’ve observed first-hand that our state still has a long way to go. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone.” 

“In addition to that First Amendment principle, I do think it’s important to say clearly that racism and white supremacy and anti-Semitism and white nationalism and homophobia are wrong, and they are inconsistent with what our country stands for,” he said. “I’m hopeful that more leaders from all walks of life will stand up and be clear about that.” 

Hurwit, 42, graduated from Stanford University in 2002 and from Harvard Law School in 2006. He clerked for a U.S. District judge in New York and worked at national law firms before joining the U.S attorney’s office in Idaho. He’s taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Idaho College of Law, volunteered his time speaking to high school students about the criminal justice system and served on the boards of local non-profits. 

Hurwit said other areas of focus for his office in his term are public safety, including drug trafficking, child exploitation cases and firearms offenses; partnerships with the state’s five Native American tribes; protecting the environment and natural resources; and financial crimes, including prosecuting abuses of federal pandemic aid programs. 

On public safety, he said, there are three main areas in which cases are prosecuted federally, “although our state partners also may handle these cases.” Drug trafficking is a major one. “Fentanyl is a huge problem in our communities, in our rural communities, not just the Treasure Valley or the more populated areas,” Hurwit said. “So that’s something we’re working to develop strategies on and have had success – I want to continue that.” 

Child exploitation cases are another category of crime that overlaps with federal prosecutions, he said, along with state. “With the advent of the internet, that’s something we have to be on the cutting edge about,” he said, “as these criminals use different social media and file-sharing platforms to try to stay anonymous.” 

On firearms offenses, he said, “Gun violence is a problem in all parts of the nation. Idaho is no exception. So we need to continue to work really hard to make sure that people who are prevented from possessing firearms do not in fact possess them.” 

Working in partnership with sovereign tribes in the state is another area of focus. “I’m looking forward to partnering with them to enhance safety in tribal communities,” Hurwit said. “We have law enforcement near many of the reservations in the state. That really is a partnership.” 

“It’s unique that these are sovereign nations and sovereign peoples, that we really have a relationship of trust that we need to build and maintain in order to serve them better,” he said. 

In a state like Idaho, Hurwit said, protecting the environment and natural resources also is a high priority. “To me, that’s not just the beauty and the mountains, the rivers and the lakes that we enjoy, but also our farming and ranch resources and those communities,” he said. “I think Idahoans of all beliefs really appreciate living in the state because of our resources. I think they bring people together.” 

That work ranges from prosecuting those who violate pollution laws to “taking thoughtful positions in litigation involving lands or ranching interests,” Hurwit said. “Because our role is to protect these resources for all Idahoans, to let people enjoy the outdoors but also to protect the resources so that people of Idaho can benefit from those resources.” 

Environmental enforcement is a priority for the U.S. Department of Justice, Hurwit noted, including “environmental justice for communities that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Traditionally, across the country, they have had more significant problems with the environment and the resources.” 

“That applies in Idaho as well,” he said. “If you look at our rural communities, they have less resources to make sure that their water and their air is what it should be. So we want to help there.” 

Idaho’s U.S. attorney’s office also plays a significant role in prosecuting financial crimes; that’s something Hurwit’s been involved with over the past decade, including successfully prosecuting a major securities and wire fraud case surrounding the collapse of DBSI Inc. of Meridian. Four former executives were convicted on dozens of fraud counts for misleading investors, leading to huge losses for the victims; the convictions all were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in 2014. 

Hurwit said financial crimes are in the spotlight now “because of the fraud that we’re seeing stemming from the various COVID relief programs that were pushed out earlier in the pandemic.” 

Already, his office has announced one major prosecution, of former Idaho GOP congressional candidate Nicholas Jones, who pled guilty June 1 to wire fraud and falsification of records for diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars of pandemic aid, including from Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster loans, to personal expenses and political advertisements. 

“That was our first large COVID fraud-related case,” Hurwit said; he prosecuted it. The office also obtained a $762,000 default judgment in March in a civil case relating to an agriculture aid program tied to the pandemic. 

“There are a lot of criminals in Idaho and around the country who have taken advantage of those relief programs that were meant to shore up the economy and help people – people have taken advantage of those to enrich themselves,” Hurwit said. “We are working really hard, and we’re going to continue to do that, to uncover those folks and their crimes, and ultimately to recover as much of the stolen funds and proceeds as we can for the taxpayer.” 

He added, “As I talk about these priorities, there’s no part of our work that we do here, and we do so much, that will be de-emphasized.” 

The lines between local, state and federal prosecution and law enforcement can overlap. Hurwit said they work in partnership. “We work really well to de-conflict and to make the decision about which jurisdiction is the best jurisdiction to pursue a case,” he said. 

Hurwit, who was sworn in last Friday, said there won’t be a lot that changes in the U.S. attorney’s office due to his taking office; everyone there, except for the U.S attorney himself, is a career employee. “We make hard decisions on a daily basis,” he said. “We make decisions that affect people’s lives in a very real way. We don’t do that quickly. We take it very seriously.” 

Davis said, “I have confidence in him; I have confidence in his approach to problem-solving. I know that our law enforcement partners have every reason in the world to have confidence in his judgment, and I believe he’ll be very thoughtful, and hesitant when he should be. He’s just going to do a fine job for us as the U.S. attorney in our district.” 

As is customary when there’s a partisan change in administrations, Davis stepped down from the post Feb. 28, 2021. In the interim, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Rafael Gonzalez Jr. served as acting U.S. attorney for Idaho. 

Hurwit said, “Mr. Gonzalez has made lasting contributions to our office not only through his internal leadership and mentorship, but also through the relationships he has built with law enforcement and other partners throughout Idaho. He is a true public servant.” 

Olson, who first hired Hurwit in 2012, said, “Josh is an extremely talented lawyer, a hard worker, and a good listener. He is committed to civil rights work and to building on Rafael Gonzalez’s outreach to civil rights leaders and diverse communities throughout Idaho. The people of Idaho will be well served by his commitment to justice and the rule of law.” 

Asked if there’s something about Idaho’s U.S. attorney’s office that people may not know, Hurwit said, “I would like them to know just how dedicated our office is and our individual employees are.” 

“On any given Sunday, as the saying goes, there’s going to be people here preparing their cases, doing their research. I’m just so fortunate to be part of this office,” he said. 

“I think that if the public could see just how hard-working our employees are and how they’re committed to making the right decisions and doing the right things, there’d be a lot more confidence, I think, in our government as a whole.” 

This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press. Read more at IdahoPress.com 

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