Russell Hasenbank and Melissa Johnson, the two nominees to replace outgoing county attorney Don Scott, field questions from those in attendance at Monday’s Seward County Republican Party meeting in the commission chambers in the Administration Building. L&T photoS/Robert Pierce
Precinct voters elect Russell Hasenbank over Melissa Johnston 24-4 to replace retiring Don Scott
By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
Precinct members in Seward County’s Republican Party made a vote largely in favor of one of the candidates nominated Monday to fill the position of county attorney made vacant by the upcoming retirement of current attorney Don Scott.
By a vote of 24 to 4, Russell Hasenbank was chosen as the new county attorney over fellow nominee Melissa Johnson. Both candidates have worked in Scott’s office in the past.
Hasenbank came to Southwest Kansas in 1993 and was hired out of law school by Scott. He had worked in the office for about 10 years, with 11 more years working in private practice.
“I’ve been on both sides relatively the same amount of time,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of organizations in the community, probably the most notable was the Southwest Medical Center board.”
Both Johnson and Hasenbank took questions from the audience following their introductions. The new county attorney said the most important thing being a prosecutor is to “work well with everybody else.”
“When you’re in this business, you cannot do this yourself,” he said. “At best, people see you in the courtroom, and they sometimes think you’re the main person on the wheel.”
Hasenbank has worked with many in law enforcement, including those in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Liberal Police Department and Seward County’s law enforcement division, as well as those in adjacent counties.
“I’ve had even more experience working with them on the defense side as a defense attorney,” he said. “I think I bring a lot of experience to it, and I think it’s important to remember we got to care for ourselves locally and we’ve got to take care of ourselves locally. I take that to be the main focus of any prosecutor.”
The nominees were asked about communication with the public. Hasenbank said like most things in life, this seems the biggest issue in the office he will now head.
“You can have the most important thing in the world or the littlest thing in the world, but if you don’t communicate properly, it can turn into something really bad,” he said.
Hasenbank said what the county attorney’s office does is of vital importance to both the safety and welfare of the community.
“It’s more important to be able to communicate with the officers on the street and the victims and the witnesses,” he said. “That is far more important than being able to communicate with the bosses. I think a lot of both our police chief and our sheriff in this community, but you have to be able to get down and talk to the people on the street. They make or break the case. They help you protect the community.”
Hasenbank said when a crime is committed, someone needs to be there who is committed to addressing the issues of the crime.
“Sometimes, when you’re in a larger office like Seward County or Ford County or Finney County, there tends to be a large build up of cases,” he said. “There’s a lot of people doing a lot of things at once. I think it’s very important you give every case the time it deserves and make sure you’re protecting that victim’s situation they’ve just gone through, but also that you apply the criminal justice system to the defendant in such a way that person won’t reoffend and that they learn a lesson. I think it’s very important that you look at the individuals involved every time.”
Hasenbank said the county attorney’s office’s job is to prosecute people who have committed crimes, and that should be its focus.
“Not everybody’s going to like that or appreciate that, but that is our job, and we are supposed to prosecute in a manner that keeps that person from reoffending and protects the community,” he said.
Hasenbank said it is likewise important to get a case done in a quick manner while giving the victims and the defendant their day in court.
“The system is designed to protect everybody,” he said. “We should do that on each individual case. My philosophy is I’m very tough and very strict on repeat criminals. Once you’ve been here again, my opinion is you won’t get free bites at the apple over and over. You need to go spend some time somewhere and figure out what you’ve done and try to become a better person.”
Johnson and Hasenbank were later asked what the biggest challenges they would see in the community. For Hasenbank, he said finding a solution for the drug problem in Liberal will provide a test for he and his fellow attorneys.
“There’s got to be, in my opinion, aggressive prosecution of the drug areas,” he said. “Methamphetamine is a drug where there’s got to be a zero tolerance for those kind of things. We have to send a message or try to send a message that we’re just not going to tolerate that here.”
Hasenbank said most people do not think of Liberal as a place where organized crime takes place, but he said those crimes could be produced by something as simple as two people deciding something. He said those are crimes the county attorney’s office needs to be particulary aggressive on.
“When people take advantage of other people and get them to sell drugs for them or people take advantage of other people to get them to do other things, we should be particularly aggressive with those kind of people, and I think that’s going to continue to be a big issue in the community,” he said.
Hasenbank said being the county attorney is about more than just prosecuting cases.
“It’s about taking care of the whole office,” he said.
The Seward County GOP’s recommendation for Hasenbank will now be forwarded to the governor’s office for final approval.