Attorney Post as Few Takers

By Jim Leusner | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted May 30, 2007

Wanted: Veteran attorney to oversee important cases in 35 Florida counties. Job expected to last 18 months or so. Salary: $145,400.

Sounds enticing, but so far there have been almost no takers.

In the past, lawyers clamored to be U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida -- one of the most powerful federal-prosecutor jobs in the country.

Stretching from Fort Myers to Orlando and Jacksonville, the office has prosecuted some of the nation's biggest criminal cases, from Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder to real-estate infomercial personality William McCorkle and Soviet spy George Trofimoff.

But after U.S. Attorney Paul Perez announced March 13 that he was stepping down for a lucrative private-sector job, only one person applied for the post. So earlier this month, the job was re-advertised with an application deadline of June 15.

"It's astonishing," said Michael Seigel, the former No. 2 man in the region's U.S. Attorney's Office from 1995 to 1999, who twice was considered for the top job.

"The typical number is 15 people.

"Being U.S. attorney at the end of the Bush administration -- most people would not see that as being a plus on your resume."

Current and former prosecutors say there are several reasons complicating decisions for prospective applicants.

With 18 months before the next presidential election, a change in administrations -- especially if a Democrat is elected -- would likely guarantee the U.S. attorney would be replaced. The jobs are filled by political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president.

There also would be a significant risk to any civil lawyer selected for the job who would have to leave his or her practice with little time to earn a reputation in the new role, attorneys say. Any career prosecutor who got the job could risk a smaller pension if not allowed to return to an old job when the new administration takes over.

"Everyone can sense the political winds are changing in this country, and there's a possibility a Democrat could win [the White House]," said Rick Jancha, an Orlando defense lawyer and Republican who retired in January after 21 years as a federal prosecutor. "There would be a real likelihood [the new U.S. attorney] would lose their job. So if you're a career prosecutor, why screw up your retirement for 18 months as boss?"

And once the U.S. attorney resigns or is replaced, he or she would be barred by federal law for two years from handling any criminal or civil cases investigated by the prosecutor's office.

Finally, there is the controversy and drama engulfing Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, possibly for political reasons. His office and the White House are currently under scrutiny by Congress.

Seigel, a Democrat who is a University of Florida law professor, thinks the turmoil inside the Justice Department in Washington is a key factor.

"It's got to be a reflection of the low morale and the attorney general's awful performance in defending the actions the department took in firing eight U.S. attorneys. I think the politicization of the department -- a lot of people are not interested in getting in the middle of that."

Perez, 52, now a corporate lawyer in Jacksonville, said the political controversy in Washington and congressional hearings have little to do with operating the U.S. Attorney's Office in Central Florida.

"I think that's an inside-the-beltway issue," Perez said. "That doesn't affect what's going on in the field. That shouldn't keep qualified people from applying for U.S. attorney.

"This is major league, the big show," Perez said of the district. "You're basically a mini-Department of Justice."

The job also has been a steppingstone for lawyers to become federal judges and partners in major law firms. Perez said working with 200 employees, including 94 attorneys, was the best post he has ever had.

"Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who was U.S. attorney for New Jersey, told me earlier this year it was the best job he ever had," Perez said. "Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said it was the best job he had."

Orlando business lawyer Marcos Marchena, chairman of the Middle District Conference committee that will screen candidates, said it is expected to submit at least three names to Florida's Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez for review with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. The senators will submit a candidate's name to the White House for consideration, and the nominee will be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Screening committee members decided to postpone the May 3 deadline because they received only one application, Marchena said. He noted that only a half-dozen lawyers applied for a similar vacancy in Miami two years ago.

Since the application process was reopened, Marchena said, he has received inquiries from interested parties.

He admits political issues in Washington might complicate the process, but he is confident qualified candidates to oversee criminal and civil cases locally for the federal government will be found. Marchena also said some U.S. attorneys have been retained by successor administrations.

"It's an important position and crucial position for our society," Marchena said.

Perez said he urged the department to name his former No. 2, Jim Klindt, as the acting U.S. attorney because of the short amount of time before the election.

"When there's 18 months left," Perez said, "maybe more attention should be paid to continuity and less disruption caused by a new person coming in."