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Dogged Enron Prosecutor Hueston to Return to O.C. as Law Firm Partner

October 05, 2006|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Solicited by top law firms across the country after reducing Kenneth L. Lay to stutters during the Enron trial, Assistant U.S. Atty. John C. Hueston announced Wednesday that he had decided to return home and work for a Southern California law firm.

Hueston -- almost as famous for his late-night chin-up sessions in the Houston courthouse as for grilling the late founder of the fallen energy company -- will become a partner at Irell & Manella next month. The firm specializes in business litigation and has offices in Newport Beach and Los Angeles.

"I want to take on trials of a different sort and climb new mountains," Hueston said, relaxing Tuesday night at the Citrus City Grille in Orange with a friend and fellow prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Wayne Gross.

Many of his soon-to-be partners knew him before the Enron case and said he was a perfect fit for the firm. Layn R. Phillips, a partner who works in the Newport Beach office, described him as a "triple threat" who can handle civil cases and white-collar defense and serve as a "fair-minded, neutral" party during sensitive internal investigations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 07, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Enron prosecutor: An article in Thursday's California section about Enron prosecutor John Hueston misidentified the co-founder of the Irell & Manella law firm as Lawrence Manella. He is Arthur Manella.

"John is like the functional equivalent of an adrenaline injection into the firm," Phillips said.

What Hueston would do as an encore to the Enron trial has been the subject of speculation for months within legal circles. He follows several fellow members of the Enron task force who have opted to join the private sector while still riding high on the prosecution of Lay and Jeffrey K. Skilling, Enron's former chief executive officer.

Hueston said he considered the Southern California law firm at the prompting of Nora Manella, a former U.S. attorney who originally recommended him for his first job as a federal prosecutor. Manella, who now sits on the California Court of Appeal, is the daughter of the firm's co-founder, Lawrence Manella.

Hueston, 42, said Irell & Manella appealed to him because of its national presence and proven track record of successfully trying high-stakes business cases, including white-collar defense and securities litigation. And since its cases often go to trial, he will get to continue testing his skills in the courtroom, where, friends and foes agree, he does his best work.

Being near his family in Corona del Mar was also a major factor. During the Enron trial, he lived primarily in a hotel room in Houston, keeping him from his wife and four children, ages 4 to 19, for the better part of 2 1/2 years.

Gross, who succeeded Hueston as chief of the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana, said he was happy to have Hueston back in Orange County but sorry to see the Department of Justice lose its "finest prosecutor."

He mused at the possibility of going up against Hueston in court.

"Facing him would be the ultimate challenge. He's the best trial lawyer I know. He's also never lost," Gross said. "So I'd relish the opportunity to hand him his first defeat."

Like Gross, other lawyers who have watched Hueston in action weren't surprised Hueston was cashing in on his high-profile victory. Even one of his primary adversaries in the Enron case wished him well.

"John's a fine lawyer and will do a good job in private practice," said Daniel M. Petrocelli, who represented Skilling and is one of the nation's most successful trial defense lawyers.

However, Petrocelli also suggested that Hueston had a "big adjustment" to make. Although the rules of criminal litigation have features that protect defendants, he said, in the area of white-collar defense, "the rules overwhelmingly favor the prosecution."

In private practice, Petrocelli said, Hueston won't have those advantages.

Hueston, the eldest of five brothers and an alumnus of Corona del Mar High School, is known for his competitive streak. He once completed a marathon in a respectable 3 hours and 30 minutes and nearly scaled Mt. McKinley, the tallest peak in North America. He said he was driven back by 60-mph winds only 800 feet short of the summit.

A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, Hueston began his career in Alabama as a clerk to federal Judge Frank Johnson Jr., a civil rights champion whom he partly credits with his approach to the law. He took a job with O'Melveny & Myers, a Los Angeles firm where Petrocelli practices, before becoming a federal prosecutor.

As the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of the Santa Ana office, Hueston earned praise for his ability to distill the most complex cases and make them compelling to a jury, Gross and other peers said.

He also became known for his relentless pursuit of corrupt public officials. Among these cases was that of Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno, who was convicted in 2000 of extortion, money-laundering and mail fraud.

Hueston quickly emerged as a leader among the dozens of attorneys named to the Enron task force. He opened the government's case, and his methodical cross-examination of Lay dismantled his defense.

His motivational skills became the stuff of lore, too. He brought in a replica of a sign the University of Notre Dame football team posts in its locker room near the stadium tunnel. Players are expected to jump up and give the sign a high-five before taking the field. Hueston made his fellow lawyers go through the same ritual before heading to court.

He also bolted a chin-up bar to a door jamb in the courthouse offices where the team worked, baiting co-prosecutors into competitions.

Hueston said he would bring the chin-up bar to his new job. "First, I have to go back to Houston and unscrew it."

christine.hanley@latimes.com

Times staff writer Molly Selvin contributed to this report.

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