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Pair of firsts recommended for Washington's U.S. attorney posts

In this Feb. 23, 2017, file photo, Nick Brown, then-counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee, takes questions at the Capitol in Olympia.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press file
In this Feb. 23, 2017, file photo, Nick Brown, then-counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee, takes questions at the Capitol in Olympia.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are recommending a pair of firsts for Washington state’s two U.S. attorney posts.

Nick Brown, the former general counsel to Gov. Jay Inslee, would be the first Black top federal prosecutor in western Washington, and Vanessa Waldref, a Justice Department environmental lawyer and former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane, would be the first woman to run the shop there.

The senators forwarded the recommendations to the Biden administration and said in a news release Monday night they hope for quick appointments and Senate confirmations.

“Washington state’s U.S. Attorneys will play critical roles in confronting challenges ranging from racial injustice, police reform, and the proliferation of white supremacy, to key climate and environmental matters, and so much more," Murray said. “Both Nick and Vanessa have served their country, their state, and their communities with honor and distinction, and they would both bring the experience, insight, and leadership needed to combat those challenges, promote equity, and affirm justice in these crucial roles.”

Brown, 43, is a litigation partner at Pacifica Law Group in Seattle, where he handles complex civil, regulatory, public policy and other matters for public and private clients. He served as Inslee's counsel from 2013 to 2017, helping the governor navigate a thicket of issues that included Inslee's 2014 moratorium on the death penalty and tension with the federal government after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize the sale of marijuana for adults.

Before that, Brown was an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle for six years, handling prosecutions that included sex abuse cases and a police officer who illegally sold weapons at gun shows. In his first trial, he helped convict a Customs and Border Protection officer who let a Canadian woman cross into the U.S. with large loads of marijuana in exchange for sex.

Brown, a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard Law, also served as a judge advocate general in the Army. In a less common qualification for a potential top federal prosecutor, he was a contestant on the second season of the reality show “Survivor,” which aired in 2001.

If nominated and confirmed, he would replace U.S. Attorney Brian Moran, an appointee of former President Donald Trump who has been serving since January 2019.

“In the time since I left the U.S. attorney's office, there has been an increased awareness of the real, longstanding issues that affect the justice system,” Brown said, citing racial equity, civil rights, police reform and political extremism. “There's a great deal of work to be done to improve the system, so it's an amazing opportunity.”

Waldref, 41, is a trial attorney in the Justice Department's Environmental Defense Section, where she defends rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and handles Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act issues. She previously spent seven years handling civil and criminal cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane, including successfully defending an ecosystem restoration project in the Colville National Forest that involved rebuilding roads, improving fish habitat and thinning trees.

In 2018, Waldref helped win a $3.2 million fraud settlement from a major contractor on the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Restoration, following a whistleblower complaint that alleged the contractor was not really directing subcontracts to women-owned or other disadvantaged businesses as required by the Department of Energy.

A graduate of Georgetown University and Georgetown Law, she has also worked in private practice in Spokane and in Washington, D.C., and she has taught administrative and environmental law at the Gonzaga University School of Law. Her sister Amber served for eight years on the Spokane City Council.

“I am honored to be recommended by Senators Murray and Cantwell for the U.S. Attorney position and thrilled for the opportunity to continue to serve Eastern Washington,” Waldref said in an emailed statement.

She would replace two-time Spokane U.S. Attorney William Hyslop, who served from 1991-93 and again since July 2019.