WASHINGTON — A former top Los Angeles federal prosecutor who was involved in a Clinton-era clemency controversy has been tapped to head an influential Department of Homeland Security immigration agency.
Alejandro Mayorkas is President Obama's pick to be director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates a broad range of immigration and naturalization issues and oversees international adoptions, asylum, refugee status and foreign student authorization.
"Alejandro's expertise covers a wide array of issues critical to the department, including law enforcement, civil rights, computer crime and international money laundering," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement Thursday.
Born in Cuba, Mayorkas was the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California from 1998 to 2001. He since has served as a litigation partner at the Los Angeles-based law firm O'Melveny and Myers, where he represents large corporations and other clients in high-profile cases here and overseas.
The White House noted in a statement that Mayorkas, who was on Obama's justice and law enforcement transition team, was named one of the 50 most influential minority lawyers in America by the National Law Journal.
Robert C. Bonner -- a former federal judge, U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and the first commissioner of Customs and Border Protection -- said Mayorkas had the skills to run the overburdened and underfunded agency, which will play a central role in the Obama administration's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration policy.
Among the proposed changes are a path to citizenship for as many as 12 million people living in the country illegally. That would place tremendous burdens on an immigration and citizenship agency already plagued by delays, processing backlogs and a lack of the modernized technology needed to keep pace with demand, Bonner said.
"Improving the capabilities of CIS is critical to dealing with immigration reform," said Bonner, who is now in private practice in Los Angeles. "I have the highest regard for Ali, who is the right person and at the right time to make CIS functional. He has the personal and management skills that will be needed for what is one of the most difficult jobs in Washington."
Mayorkas also was one of several prominent Southern California political figures who played a role in a 2001 decision by President Clinton to commute a drug dealer's prison sentence.
Carlos Vignali was convicted in 1994 for his role in a drug ring that delivered more than 800 pounds of cocaine -- worth about $5 million at the time -- from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. He was released after serving less than half of his 14 1/2 -year sentence when Clinton included him among 176 clemency cases that he granted in his last few hours in office.
The move sparked outrage among federal prosecutors in Minneapolis, who had lobbied aggressively against any commutation for Vignali. They said Mayorkas had called them twice to ask questions about the case.
Vignali's father, Horacio, was a wealthy Los Angeles businessman and developer who had contributed more than $160,000 to many Latino political figures in Southern California; he persuaded some of them to lobby the White House for his son's early release.
Mayorkas later admitted phoning the White House counsel's office at the urging of the elder Vignali.
A subsequent congressional investigation criticized Mayorkas, saying it was improper for a senior law enforcement official to be lobbying for such a commutation, especially for someone convicted in another district.
Mayorkas apologized. "It is reasonable to expect that someone in my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information" about Vignali, he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "I made a mistake."
In a brief telephone interview Thursday, Mayorkas said he could not discuss the pending appointment, which has not been made official.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the public interest watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that it was highly unusual for a top federal prosecutor to seek clemency for a convicted drug dealer and that Mayorkas had not fully addressed why he intervened in the case.
"That makes him a questionable appointment for any government job," Sloan said. "We're owed an explanation as to what he did and why he did it. I accept that there could be a good reason, but it must be shared publicly."