In the months preceding his successful bid for Spokane County prosecutor, Larry Haskell campaigned as a reformer despite his establishment roots.
The longtime former deputy prosecutor touted his integrity and track record of fairness. He distanced himself from his controversial predecessor, Steve Tucker, and publicly embraced criminal justice reforms, like sentencing alternatives and rehabilitation programs for offenders.
"For me, the main effort is of course to increase community safety and promote trust in what we do," he told the Inlander last fall. "Trust is everything."
But online comments tinged with religious and racial bias made by his wife, Lesley Haskell, threaten to undermine public trust in the prosecutor's office, community leaders say. For example, on a Facebook page called "Chicks on the Right," Lesley Haskell commented on an article about a Muslim mayor in the Netherlands who, after the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices, said Muslims who "do not like freedom can pack your bags and leave."
"I don't care what he said, I do not trust muzlims [sic] no matter what," she posted on Jan. 13. "Also, do we know for sure this was correctly translated?"
On another Facebook page called "The Shenanigans of Cupcakes and Friends" — a "place for conservatives. PERIOD! No libturds allowed" — Lesley Haskell replied to a YouTube video in which a white woman steals the microphone from a speaker in a hijab at Texas Muslim Capitol Day and yells from a podium, "I stand against Islam and the false prophet Mohammed! Islam will never dominate the United States and by the grace of God, it will not dominate Texas!"
"Oh my God, I love her!" Haskell wrote on Jan. 30. "That's exactly what I would do!"
Lesley Haskell's online activity hasn't gone unnoticed since her husband's election last November. The Inlander was first made aware of her remarks by readers concerned that her husband shared similar opinions. Liz Moore, the executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, questioned whether Lesley Haskell's publicly posted comments about Muslims and other minorities also mirror her husband's views; as an officer of the court, he is expected to administer justice fairly and impartially.
"I think that people are individuals from whom they are married to, and at the same time, I think everyone in our community needs to feel confident that they are treated fairly by everyone in public office, and in the criminal justice system in particular," Moore says. "If I were a member of the Islamic faith, this would make me have questions about how I would be treated or perceived. I think it would be great for Mr. Haskell to confirm that everybody of every faith and community will be treated fairly."
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, adds: "We could have a Muslim victim. We could have a Muslim defendant, and that's going to bear on how partial [he is] or how he handles the matter. It's important for this community to understand if he carries the same types of biases as those of his significant other."
In a statement to the Inlander regarding his wife's remarks, Larry Haskell defended her right to express her political opinions on Facebook and elsewhere online. "She is a strong, independent, and conservative woman," he wrote in an email. "As many others do here in Spokane, she frequently expresses those personal opinions in dialogues in on-line forums. The expressed views are her own. She does not represent me in these forums, either personally or professionally. She strongly believes in the first amendment and the exercise of her personal rights. I support the right to freedom of speech of all people."
When asked to clarify his feelings about Muslims and other minorities, he responded: "As to all persons and groups, everyone is entitled to the equal protection of the laws. They will not be discriminated against. Period."
Lesley Haskell also has made racially tinged remarks about immigrants, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and its Spokane chapter president, Rachel Dolezal.
In a since-deleted comment, originally posted on Jan. 16 on the Facebook page of "Spokane's 8th Man" — the conservative, self-described city council "watchdog group" — she compared Dolezal to civil rights activist Al Sharpton, a frequent target of right-wing criticism, and accused her of dehumanizing white crime victims.
"The biggest problem with Ms. Dolenzal [sic] is that she has absolute blinders on when it comes to white people," Lesley Haskell wrote. "She can't grasp the fact that whites are human beings, victims of crimes, and we hurt too. She had no reason to confront the owner but to try to bully and intimidate. Well, Ms. Sharpton-lite, it won't work. Might I suggest something on the other side of the sign? 'If I had a Grandpa, he would look like Shorty.'"
Haskell's comment was written in a response to an Inlander article about a controversial sign displayed outside a local diner. The sign was inspired by the death of 88-year-old Delbert "Shorty" Belton, who was killed by two black teenagers in August 2013. It reads: "Shorty can't breathe either." Dolezal had paid a visit to the restaurant and asked to speak with its owner after a Spokesman-Review reporter asked her about the implications of appropriating the dying words of Eric Garner, a black man who died last summer in Staten Island as the result of a police officer's chokehold. Garner's words have since become a rallying cry for protesters around the country in demonstrations against unprosecuted police killings of unarmed black men.
"It's very concerning to me that someone in [Larry Haskell's] position is so closely connected with an individual who is making these kind of alienating and derogatory remarks, especially after he has been elected," says Dolezal, an Inlander columnist who also chairs the city's police ombudsman commission. "He is the county prosecutor and we already know there are inequalities — that justice does not tend to happen fairly nationwide. There's already distrust with public prosecution in general, and this definitely does nothing to build trust."
Others suspect that Lesley Haskell's controversial online commentary extends to the Spokesman-Review website, where a frequent user has posted similar remarks over the past two years, praising Larry Haskell, criticizing the Spokane Smart Justice campaign and deriding Islam. Lesley Haskell declined multiple requests for comment regarding her online posts. She did, however, tell a reporter to "give it up now" over Facebook. "There's nothing to report," she wrote in a message. "Besides, you're creeping me out."
"I don't want to assume that anyone's spouse speaks for them. But I think it's fair that it raises questions," says Moore, from the Peace and Justice Action League. "Our community obviously works best when it works very well for everyone, and that sort of scapegoating, stereotyping and 'othering' of folks in our community, or folks anywhere that are part of our human community, has a harmful impact." ♦