Four former federal prosecutors--two of them Superior Court judges--are considered the top contenders for possible nomination as U.S. attorney, the top federal law enforcement position in Southern California.
Sources close to a special screening committee for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said Wednesday that the four contenders are among a list of eight lawyers and judges that will be submitted to replace U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner, who was confirmed last week to a federal judgeship.
Attorneys Terry W. Bird, 43, and Donald C. Smaltz, 52, together with Judges Lourdes Baird, 53, and Alexander Williams III, 45, are believed to be at the top of the list about to be forwarded to Wilson, who makes recommendations on presidential appointments in California.
The U.S. attorney oversees federal prosecutions and government legal actions throughout Los Angeles and the seven-county surrounding region, supervising a staff of 121 lawyers and handling prosecutions ranging from securities and bank fraud to narcotics, espionage and money laundering.
Bonner, 46, had brought unprecedented visibility to the office since his appointment in 1984, personally overseeing the trial of the first FBI agent ever accused of spying and unleashing a wave of white-collar crime and defense procurement fraud prosecutions.
He is expected to take the bench by late summer, after U.S. District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer's elevation to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. However, Justice Department officials said it is not likely that a permanent replacement will be confirmed until fall. In the meantime, the department will appoint an interim U.S. attorney.
Sources close to the screening process said the committee narrowed a larger list of applicants for the office to eight "serious" candidates, only four of whom were believed likely to win Wilson's endorsement:
* Bird, a partner with the Westwood law firm of Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert & Matz, was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1972 to 1977, overseeing a task force that prosecuted fraud and corruption in federal housing programs. He left the office to head an investigation into cost overruns on the Alaskan Pipeline, then returned to Los Angeles to launch a law firm that now handles criminal and civil litigation.
* Smaltz is a veteran trial lawyer with the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. An assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 1964 to 1966, Smaltz stayed on as a special assistant for another 2 years before moving to private practice. In his most recent high-profile case, he represented California Overseas Bank, under indictment in New York with former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos for allegedly using funds embezzled from the Philippine treasury to buy U.S. real estate.
* Baird is the only Democrat among the leading contenders for what is normally considered a political appointment. However, the fact that she is a Latina--a native of Ecuador, she is fluent in Spanish--makes her an attractive candidate, some sources said. A juvenile dependency judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court bench, Baird was hired as a federal prosecutor in 1976 and left to enter private practice 8 years later. In 1986, she was appointed to the Municipal bench, and elevated to the Superior Court last September.
* Williams headed the narcotics unit for the U.S. attorney's office from 1975 to 1979, then took over the Justice Department's narcotics and dangerous drug section. He returned about a year later to Los Angeles as chief assistant U.S. attorney, and served there until 1984, when he was appointed to the Superior Court. He now oversees criminal cases.
The screening committee also evaluated more than 30 applicants for the remaining federal judgeship in Los Angeles, to fill the vacancy left by U.S. District Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez's recent elevation to the appeals court.
Sources said the list was narrowed to 18 candidates, including Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Taylor, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs and Beverly Hills attorney Stephen A. Kroft, a partner in the firm of Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman.