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`He Doesn't Just Win. He Destroys.'

THE ENRON VERDICTS

Co-lead prosecutor John Hueston is known by friends and foes as a tough opponent.

May 26, 2006|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

John C. Hueston -- the federal lawyer who co-led the prosecution of former Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth L. Lay -- has long been regarded as a formidable opponent in Southern California legal circles.

Well before he faced down Lay in a testy cross-examination in April and May, the 42-year-old Corona del Mar resident earned a reputation as a driven prosecutor. The assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Santa Ana office, Hueston relentlessly pursued corruption charges against local officials.

"Not only has he never lost a case, he has never lost a single count in a case," said Wayne Gross, a former colleague who is chief assistant U.S. attorney in Santa Ana. "He doesn't just win. He destroys the other side."

Lay was convicted on all six fraud and conspiracy counts against him in connection with the disintegration of Enron. Lay's codefendant, former Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling, was convicted on 19 counts but acquitted on nine others.

Technically, though, Hueston's unblemished record stands. He was primarily responsible for the case against Lay; his co-counsel Sean M. Berkowitz ran the case against Skilling.

Hueston methodically dismantled Lay's defense and beat one of the nation's most successful trial defense lawyers, Daniel M. Petrocelli.

Hueston can be aggressive in the courtroom, once leading to an accusation by another Lay defense attorney, Chip B. Lewis, that the prosecutor had deliberately ignored key evidence in Lay's favor.

"Don't come to Houston, Texas, and lie to us," Lewis said this month in a heated moment.

Earlier in the trial, Hueston's accusations of fraud and hypocrisy reduced Lay to a state of stuttering confusion.

John Rayburn Jr., chief assistant U.S. attorney in Riverside, called Hueston "extremely driven."

Hueston's brusque approach might have stemmed, in part, from a competitive personality that made him a success as a wrestler in high school, mountain climber and amateur runner.

Hueston and Rayburn once entered the "Baker to Vegas" run, a team footrace favored by law enforcement officials. It meanders 120 miles through the Mojave desert, in six-mile stages.

"John and I had a bet against two marshals," Rayburn said. "John damn near knocked his guy into the next county. He ran about a 6:15- or 6:20-per-mile pace on a very hilly leg of the race. We won a couple of bucks and a lot of bragging rights."

Hueston, a registered Democrat, graduated from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School. Before his career as a prosecutor, he was an attorney at the Los Angeles-based firm O'Melveny & Myers, where Petrocelli currently practices.

Hueston is viewed by friends and adversaries alike as having his sights set on higher office. Fresh from the Enron victory, he is said to covet a federal judgeship.

Gross said Hueston's approach to the law was shaped in part by his experience as a clerk to federal Judge Frank Johnson Jr., who is known for his stance on civil rights.

Hueston's marriage to a Navajo Indian woman, with whom he has four children, also was instrumental in shaping his drive to protect the less-privileged against governmental or corporate corruption, former colleagues said.

"He and his wife have worked very hard to make sure that their children understand the culture of native Americans. They spent significant amounts of time on the reservation," Gross said.

Hueston specializes in public corruption and fraud. He was handpicked for the government's Enron team after a nationwide search of prosecutors, and was recommended by Debra Wong Yang, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Hueston built a 2004 case against Carson Mayor Daryl Sweeney, leading to a guilty plea in a case involving conspiracy to extort money from local waste haulers seeking a city contract. And in 2000, Hueston won a 25-count conviction against Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno for extortion, money laundering and mail fraud in an elaborate plot to control city government.

H. Dean Steward, a criminal defense attorney in San Clemente who defended Moreno, said Hueston, a personal friend, is a crusader who rarely sees shades of gray.

"He almost never gives a criminal defendant a break in any context," Steward said. "If I had my druthers, I'd like to build a little more compassion and humanity into John."

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