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Mueller Brings Platoon Leader Instincts to Job

July 06, 2001|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When the Justice Department dispatched Robert Mueller to become the top federal prosecutor in the Bay Area three years ago, he was a Marine on a mission.

From his nondescript 11th-floor office overlooking one of San Francisco's seedier neighborhoods, Mueller took on an operation in crisis. His predecessor as U.S. attorney was facing allegations of misconduct. The office had the nation's worst record for prosecuting environmental crimes. And federal judges were complaining loudly about the morass.

With a military man's regimen and a prosecutor's drive, Mueller is widely credited with revitalizing the Northern California operation. Now, as President Bush's pick to head the beleaguered FBI, Mueller faces an even greater challenge in taking over an agency more than 100 times as big--and with scandals on a far grander scale.

Can Mueller do it? While some grouse about his lack of name recognition, the Manhattan native's many admirers say he is well prepared for the task of replacing former director Louis J. Freeh. After an eight-year tenure that saw the FBI dramatically expand its crime-fighting role overseas, Freeh left last month on a down note after a series of embarrassments for the bureau--most notably the Robert Philip Hanssen spy scandal and a document foul-up in the Timothy J. McVeigh case.

Mueller and the FBI are "the perfect marriage of a man to a job," said prominent San Francisco defense attorney Cristina Arguedas, who has squared off against the new director in court. "He's a law enforcement advocate to his bones. He lives it and breathes it."

As Mueller prepares for battle in reshaping a law enforcement agency facing unprecedented scrutiny, many supporters say he can be expected to rely on his Marine experience in Vietnam, where he served as a rifle platoon leader and won a Bronze Star.

Indeed, he is famous for walking the halls of his San Francisco office early in the morning and late into the evening, conducting mock roll calls to check on his staff.

"Clearly, his military training . . . gives him a sense of purpose and self-control and commitment that most of us who have never had the experience admire," said attorney Joseph Russoniello, a former U.S. attorney in San Francisco who served as Mueller's boss in the 1980s. "What some people may perceive as being overbearing is a matter of his leading by example, and that's a product of his conditioning."

Lured Into Private Practice but Left

The 56-year-old Mueller (pronounced MULL-er) has lived the transitive life of a career prosecutor in search of his next great case, spending much of the last two decades jumping between prominent Justice Department posts in Boston, Washington and San Francisco.

Even when he was lured into private practice, he didn't stay.

Former Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. recalls how shocked he was when, while serving as the federal prosecutor in Washington in the mid-1990s, Mueller called him seeking a job. At the time, Mueller was making about $400,000 a year as a senior partner at a Boston law firm.

"It was one of the more extraordinary calls I ever got," Holder recalled Thursday. "Bob said, 'Eric, I want you to do me a favor. I'd like to come work for the U.S. attorney's office and prosecute homicide cases. I just want to be a line guy.' It was one of those moments where I wasn't totally sure I had heard him right."

Mueller's unusual career move reflected a lifelong desire to "wear the white hat," said Russoniello, his old boss.

Russoniello recalled that when he took over as U.S. attorney in San Francisco in 1982, those familiar with his staff had a "keep and discard" list. "At the top of the people to keep was Mueller," he said.

Mueller, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Virginia Law School, joined the Northern California district as a prosecutor in 1976. Before long he was trying some of its toughest cases, including a racketeering and drug case against a group of Hells Angels bikers.

He went on to become head of the criminal section for the Northern California district, and then in the mid-1980s was named to the U.S. attorney's job in Boston.

By 1990, he was heading the Justice Department's criminal division in Washington, overseeing investigations into mobster John Gotti, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the Pan Am Flight 103 crash in Scotland and other high-profile probes.

He took some flak from conservatives over what they saw as the Justice Department's lax investigation into the Bank of Credit & Commerce International corruption case a decade ago, a charge that resurfaced in recent weeks as his nomination was being considered.

One Justice Department official who worked with Mueller during that period, who asked not to be identified, said Mueller could be frustratingly indecisive. "You'd go into Mueller with something and he'd want to form a committee. You were left to make your own decisions," the former official said.

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