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Post of U.S. attorney may be filled soon

Attention focuses on Thomas O'Brien, chief of the L.A. office's criminal division who formerly worked in the D.A.'s gang unit.

June 01, 2007|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

As Congress investigates whether U.S. attorneys across the nation were fired or forced out for political reasons, the Bush administration appears to be poised to nominate a respected career prosecutor as U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.

Thomas O'Brien, 47, the chief of the office's criminal division, worked for five years in the district attorney's hard-core gang division before moving to the U.S. attorney's office.

"He's probably the most apolitical person selected to that job for some time," Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said. "He's an excellent pick. He's a career, professional prosecutor."

For months, congressional hearings have raised questions as to whether U.S. attorneys were pushed out for pressing corruption investigations of prominent Republicans or for failing to pursue voter fraud cases that could help the GOP.

Last week, Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales' former senior counsel, Monica Goodling, testified that she took party affiliation into account even for hiring career prosecutors -- positions meant to be nonpolitical.

Carl W. Tobias, professor of constitutional law at the University of Richmond, said O'Brien's nomination would be a healthy sign that the Justice Department is changing its policies.

"My sense of what's going on is that there is an inclination at the Justice Department to pick these kinds of people to defuse the controversy," Tobias said. "It seems like it's going to be much more of a meritocracy."

For several weeks, the FBI has been conducting a routine background check on O'Brien, according to several sources either contacted directly by agents or familiar with those who have. Traditionally, this is an indication that a candidate has been selected.

But given the furor over the U.S. attorney scandal in Washington, nothing is certain until an announcement is made. A Justice Department spokesman would not comment on the issue, nor would O'Brien.

A source familiar with the process said O'Brien has not had his final interview with Gonzales. And Gonzales' own future in that post is in doubt.

O'Brien's Senate confirmation should not be an obstacle, experts say. O'Brien, a Republican, 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 precisely to avoid drawn-out nomination fights.

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. The legal publication the Daily Journal first reported that O'Brien was near selection for the position.

The vacancy was created by the resignation of Debra Wong Yang in January. Congressional investigators are looking into whether she too was pushed out for political reasons, although she has vehemently denied it.

U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian, who had put his name forward for the U.S. attorney position then withdrew it, said O'Brien would be a great choice at a time when the office has been demoralized by budget cuts, heavy personnel losses and unpopular edicts from Washington.

"All of the top prosecutors are leaving the office to take lucrative jobs in the private sector," Tevrizian said. "I think he'll be able to stop that. The sooner the president nominates him the better."

He said O'Brien had "impeccable credentials outside the Beltway" and would not be an absentee landlord as some U.S. attorneys politically attuned to Washington have been perceived.

William Carter, a recently departed prosecutor from the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, agreed.

"He cares about prosecutors," Carter said. "He cares about the system. He is a problem-solver."

Carter said O'Brien motivates attorneys to be creative and volunteer for cases. When an assistant U.S. attorney passed out during opening statements last week due to a medical problem, O'Brien took over personally. On Thursday, he was in court on the case.

"He came out with that background as a D.A. where you get a file the day before and go try it," Carter said.

O'Brien's management style would probably be different than that of Yang, who had strong political connections in Washington and often traveled there to serve on Justice Department committees. E-mails released during the congressional probe showed that Yang had a friendly relationship with D. Kyle Sampson -- Gonzales' chief of staff at the time and an orchestrator of the firings.

Those who know O'Brien say he is not politically active. He does not attend fundraisers or donate any significant sum to campaigns. Nor is he a member of the conservative Federalist Society, as many new hires in the Department of Justice have been.

"I have to assume he's Republican," said Carter, who is an independent. "I never knew that."

O'Brien is known as blunt and outspoken. At a recent seminar at Loyola Law School, he was asked how to give an opening trial statement.

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