President Bush on Thursday nominated Thomas O'Brien, a respected career prosecutor, to be U.S. attorney in Los Angeles -- a choice that heartened legal observers disturbed by allegations that eight U.S. attorneys across the nation were fired for political reasons.
"Probably one of the most intelligent things this administration has done," said retired U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, a Reagan appointee to the bench. "I think he'll provide the leadership, the maturity and energy. I think he'll revitalize one of the great prosecutorial agencies in the country."
O'Brien, 48, the chief of the office's criminal division, worked for five years in the Los Angeles County district attorney's hard-core gang division before moving to the U.S. attorney's office.
"This office has always done great work, and I am pleased that I will now have the opportunity to lead our efforts to continue this tradition," O'Brien said in a statement.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said O'Brien should have no problems navigating Senate confirmation hearings. O'Brien was recommended by a bipartisan committee headed by legal power broker Gerald L. Parsky that was created with the support of California's two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, precisely to avoid drawn-out nomination fights.
"It would have been a showdown with Feinstein if they didn't go with the committee choice," Levenson said.
"It's a good choice -- excellent lawyer, career prosecutor, respected in the office and doesn't have Washington baggage," she added.
Although some defense attorneys privately complained about O'Brien's handling of certain cases, they were generally positive about the choice.
"Filings are down, there's low morale," defense attorney Dale Rubin said. "We're a major city, and we should have a strong leader, and he satisfies these qualities."
As top prosecutor in the second-largest district in the nation, O'Brien would oversee all federal cases in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Levenson said the controversy surrounding the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys undoubtedly played a hand in pushing the administration to choose someone local.
O'Brien, if confirmed, would succeed Debra Wong Yang, who resigned in January. Congressional investigators are looking into whether she too was pushed out for political reasons, although she has vehemently denied it, and critics have presented no evidence to that effect.
As criminal chief, O'Brien has been a hands-on administrator, generally liked by his staff, and with a reputation for an aggressive approach to cases. His management style is different from that of Yang, who often traveled to Washington and did not have a strong presence within the office.
O'Brien was born in Massachusetts, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981 and flew in F-14s as a radar intercept operator. He is a graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School and served on two overseas deployments on active duty.
O'Brien attended the University of San Diego School of Law and was a deputy district attorney in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles in 1994.
He tried 65 cases with the L.A. County district attorney's office, including 35 murder cases before juries.
O'Brien moved to the U.S. attorney's office in October 2000 and was promoted to chief of the civil rights division and then chief of the criminal division two years ago.