WASHINGTON — From the moment she took over as U.S. attorney in San Diego in 2002, Carol Chien-Hua Lam made no secret that white-collar crime would be her top priority -- including transgressions by prominent business and political figures.
And she was as good as her word, prosecuting corporate targets, local officials and a U.S. congressman, Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe, who is in prison as a result of her efforts.
Lam, however, was recently fired, one of eight U.S. attorneys ousted by the Justice Department in what has become another headache for the Bush administration.
Congressional Democrats have challenged the firings, questioning whether aggressive prosecutors were removed for political reasons.
Lam's case has political overtones, but it also reflects a more complicated reality: a conflict over what the priorities of federal prosecutors should be and who should set them. In her case, pursuing white-collar crime at the expense of border crime, illegal immigration and gun violence.
California, with its cutting-edge business community and overnight fortunes, is fertile ground for white-collar crime and corruption.
At the same time, the state has some of the most active border crossings in the nation and big problems with drugs, smuggling, immigration and gang violence, issues that have been on the front burner of the Justice Department and the White House.
Heading into last year's midterm election, President Bush and his political strategists were struggling with a rebellion by conservative Republicans over immigration policy. The White House goal was to demonstrate toughness on border crime and security.
The record suggests Lam did not see things that way.
For one thing, she apparently took the appointment as U.S. attorney as a favor to Republican officials after several candidates were eliminated. And she always had an independent streak.
Associates said she also had a low opinion of the endless cases of border crime and was seemingly tone deaf to the rising political furor over illegal immigration.
That inevitably meant a conflict not only with Justice Department but with other federal law enforcement agencies involved in border security.
"They're clapping like seals now that she's gone," said one federal official in San Diego, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he works closely with the U.S. attorney's office there. "The Border Patrol. Customs.... They couldn't be happier."
Charles La Bella, who was interim U.S. attorney in San Diego under President Clinton in the late 1990s and who squared off against Lam in a high-profile case involving allegations of kickbacks by hospital officials, said he sensed that she was not paying attention to the border.
He said that when he headed the U.S. attorney's office, he learned the importance of border and immigration issues.
"But there she was in court with me all the time" at the kickback trial, which went on for months, he said.
'Very, very formal'
Lam, 45, has always followed her own compass.
The daughter of parents who came from Shanghai before the communists overran China, she grew up in New Jersey, was educated at Yale University and moved to California to attend law school at Stanford University.
She signed on as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego in 1986 and worked for 14 years, winning a name for herself not on border cases, where many of her peers started out, but for landing bigger fish.
In 1990, she helped put away an accused mobster for money laundering.
In 1992, she won a guilty plea from the president of a La Jolla-based laboratory in a billing fraud case.
Some former prosecutors remember Lam acting as if she were too good to be bothered by border cases.
Nor is she remembered for her camaraderie.
"She was not an outgoing person," recalled one prosecutor who now works in another border city. "You could stop her in the hall and chat, but it was always very, very formal."
In 2000, Lam became a Superior Court judge in San Diego. Two years later, when she emerged as a compromise candidate for the U.S. attorney job, she told the San Diego Union-Tribune that one of the most important lessons she learned as a judge was that hard sentences deterred criminals. She once sentenced a notorious bank robber to 175 years.
The big cases came her way as the top federal prosecutor.
The largest prize was Cunningham, a longtime congressman and a Vietnam War hero caught up in a bribery and tax-evasion scandal. He pleaded guilty and was given an eight-year sentence.
The day before she left office Feb. 15, she announced the indictments of two of Cunningham's alleged co-conspirators.
"High government positions and powerful connections should not be tickets to corrupt self-enrichment," she said. "The public trust is not for sale."
Although such cases were making national headlines, critics said the U.S. attorney's office seemed to have gone missing on the border.