U.S. Attorney Pick Hits Political Roadblock

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | The U.S. attorney selection committee, which had wrapped up interviews weeks ago and recommended the nomination of prominent San Diego defense lawyer Jerry Coughlan, apparently has run into a political roadblock.

Sources close to the process said Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office hesitated at the recommendation of Coughlan because of concerns that his selection could spark resignations within the U.S. Attorney’s office. Some senior U.S. attorneys and defense lawyers previously described Coughlan in a voiceofsandiego.org story as “arrogant” and “divisive.” The prosecutors asked not to be identified because the subject is sensitive.

As a result, the committee interviewed another candidate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, on June 10, the sources said. Duffy, deputy chief of the general crimes section and a former member of the narcotics unit, has successfully prosecuted about 20 leaders of the much-feared Arellano Félix drug cartel.

Coughlan remains the committee’s first choice, but it’s unclear which name or names will be submitted in the wake of Duffy’s interview, the sources said. The senator will decide who will be offered to President Obama for nomination, and the nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. At this pace, it’s unlikely a new U.S. attorney would be in office before late in the year.

Prior to Duffy, the committee interviewed only three of about nine applicants, including Coughlan and two in-house candidates: Tim Coughlin, head of the U.S. attorney’s drug unit, and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin J. Kelly, who is second-in-command. The number of applicants is an estimate because the process is secret.

While searching for the right nominee, the committee signaled it was not satisfied with the pool of applicants by reaching out to at least three lawyers, asking them to apply for the position. White-collar defense attorney Michael Attanasio and Superior Court Judges Laura J. Birkmeyer and Cynthia A. Bashant apparently turned down the request, the sources said.

Duffy, a career prosecutor who started at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., in 1993, was hired in San Diego by then-U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin in 1997.

She became a member of the narcotics unit until she was named deputy chief of the general crimes section in January 2008, where she supervises about a dozen attorneys.

Duffy is well-liked by colleagues, including opponents in the defense community, and she is admired for her successes on the drug unit.

Critics said Duffy has little trial experience and her expertise is limited to drug cases. But some colleagues said Duffy is a shrewd negotiator who gets defendants to plead guilty. And, working in the drug arena has served her well, helping her hone management skills working with various multi-agency task forces, federal agencies and foreign governments.

Coughlan (pronounced COFF-lan) specializes in white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation and is probably best known for defending former San Diego City Councilman Michael Zucchet, who was convicted of corruption by a jury but later acquitted by the judge.

Kelly, second-in-command under U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt, was the lead prosecutor who won convictions in the notorious PinnFund USA fraud that bilked investors out of $330 million, and in the high-profile judges corruption case. Kelly is endorsed by San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego and the South Asian Bar Association of San Diego.

Boxer’s office declined to comment, saying the process is confidential.

Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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