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Monday, Dec. 29, 2008 | The San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has endured political controversy, wild priority shifts and frequent turnover at the top in recent years, is in for yet another change in leadership as a result of Barack Obama’s election.

Names of potential candidates to replace U.S. Attorney Karen P. Hewitt — the fifth boss in 10 years — are already circulating in the legal community, though the selection process has yet to be decided and it’s unlikely anyone would be chosen for six months to a year.

Among the names of possible applicants mentioned by those attorneys’ friends or colleagues: Former federal prosecutors Michael Attanasio and Jerry Coughlan, now defense attorneys; Superior Court Judge and former federal prosecutor Amalia Meza; Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mitchell D. Dembin, Christopher P. Tenorio and Randy K. Jones; and former City Attorney Casey Gwinn — a Republican dark horse. All are believed to be Obama supporters — even Gwinn, who along with Coughlan, Meza, Dembin, Jones and Tenorio was a financial contributor to the Obama campaign, according to public records.

Coughlan, Dembin and Tenorio declined to comment; Meza, Jones and Gwinn didn’t return calls seeking comment. Attanasio, considered a frontrunner among peers because of his courtroom successes, his popularity in the legal community and his Justice Department background working under Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, said he does not intend to seek the post.

“It is flattering to be mentioned as a candidate for a presidential appointment,” Attanasio said. “However, at this time I am dedicated to my clients and colleagues and I am not interested in applying for the position.  There are many other excellent candidates in San Diego and I am sure the president-elect and his team will choose the best lawyer for the job, but I have no plans to seek the position.”

Of course, denials and “no comments” can be misleading. Before Lam became U.S. attorney, her friends told a reporter that Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office had asked her to apply. At the time, Lam was as coy as these potential applicants, saying she had not applied and had no intention of doing so.

In late 2002, Lam became the only San Diego U.S. attorney since Alan Bersin almost 10 years earlier to be confirmed by the Senate. The others in between — Charles La Bella, Gregory Vega, Patrick O’Toole — turned out to be interim top prosecutors serving one or two years for various reasons. That is likely to be the situation with Hewitt as well. She has not indicated whether she is interested in applying for the job under Obama.

Whoever is selected, it’s likely the office will see changes under Obama and Holder, should he be approved by the Senate. The confirmation proceedings are scheduled to begin Jan. 8.

The new San Diego appointee will take the helm after a scandalous chapter at the Department of Justice in which eight U.S. attorneys, including Lam, were fired. Some considered it improper political interference in the department.

Lam was ousted ostensibly for failing to prosecute immigration crimes to the satisfaction of the Justice Department, putting her and the others at the center of a national controversy as well as congressional investigations which resulted in the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

When Hewitt took the helm in February 2006 amid the controversy, she had a clear mandate to make changes. She instigated a dramatic shift to the Bush Administration’s priorities — hundreds more immigration, gun and child pornography cases.

That’s likely to change again when the new U.S. attorney takes over, some legal experts said.

“It will be up to the new USA (U.S. attorney) where the office goes,” La Bella said. His own bid for nomination was derailed by politics after he made an unpopular recommendation in 1998 that then-Attorney General Janet Reno appoint a special prosecutor to investigate campaign-finance allegations against Vice President Al Gore.

“I see a return to the independence from political influence that DOJ has traditionally enjoyed,” he said. “That process has already begun under Judge (Michael) Mukasey (who replaced Gonzales). I think the next USA will be free to shape the office to meet the needs of the community and not the political expediency of the moment. I see a DOJ that may complete the return to the business of administering justice.”

Whether that translates to fewer immigration cases and more white-collar and corruption prosecutions remains to be seen.

In stumping for Holder’s confirmation in a Dec. 12 statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the need for change in the department is urgent in the wake of the recent scandals.

“This is no ordinary time. Over the last eight years, political manipulation and influence from partisan political operatives in the White House have undercut the Department of Justice in its mission, severely undermined the morale of its career professionals, and shaken public confidence in our federal justice system,” Leahy said.

The U.S. attorney is technically appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but is traditionally picked by the senior senator from the president’s party in the state where the vacancy exists. In California, the senators are both from the president-elect’s Democratic Party, and have equal seniority.

During the Clinton Administration, the last time a Democrat was in the White House, the senators split the choices in the state’s four judicial districts, with Sen. Barbara Boxer making picks in San Diego and San Francisco and Feinstein making the calls in Sacramento and Los Angeles. The senators will likely use the same method or some variation, also assembling a committee to interview applicants and make recommendations.

Committee members are likely to include prominent Democrats or legal eagles like retired U.S. District Judge Lawrence Irving, former Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, and former U.S. attorneys Alan Bersin and Greg Vega.

Irving, a Republican, also served on a committee that advised President Bush on federal appointments. Under Bush, because both of California’s senators are Democrats, a committee of three Republican lawyers in each of the four judicial districts in the state interviewed U.S. attorney candidates and made recommendations to Gerald Parsky, a prominent Republican and Bush friend, who then advised Bush. The San Diego committee members were Irving, Meryl Young, and John Davies.

Most of the possible contenders are Democrats; all are believed to be Obama supporters. Political persuasion is certainly a consideration but not necessarily a requirement, experts said. Lam and La Bella are both independents.

The prominent possible applicants in San Diego this time around, in alphabetical order:

Attanasio: He’s a partner at Cooley Godward Kronish, specializing in white collar criminal defense and securities fraud litigation. He was a federal prosecutor under Holder in the Justice Department’s public integrity section, a special unit that prosecutes sensitive white-collar cases in districts around the country. In private practice, he recently won dismissal of charges against a defendant in the Peregrine Systems Inc. case after two juries deadlocked — a major courtroom victory. He’s an adjunct professor at University of San Diego’s law school. Early in his career he was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Rudi Brewster.

Coughlan: The prominent defense attorney started his career on the other side, as an assistant U.S. attorney and a Justice Department lawyer. During his decade as a prosecutor, he won cases ranging from securities fraud to murder. He went into private practice in 1983 and now specializes in white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation. His most notable recent case was defending former San Diego City Councilman Michael Zucchet, whose corruption conviction by a jury was reversed by the judge. Before that Coughlan was best known for defending a Superior Court judge convicted in a high-profile trial in 1996, and for negotiating a $2.75 million civil judgment for computer executive Donald Carlson, an innocent man who was shot by federal agents during a botched drug raid at his Poway home. Coughlan gave $1,750 to Obama’s election campaign.

Dembin: He’s done several tours as an assistant U.S. attorney, with forays into private practice and the corporate world. He was one of the nation’s first prosecutors to specialize in cyber crimes. He taught the first electronic evidence class in 1992 and founded the regional computer forensic lab for the San Diego law enforcement community in 1998. One of his most significant cases was the successful 1993 prosecution of about 240 telemarketers nationwide, including 90 in San Diego, who defrauded elderly victims. After that Dembin was promoted to lead the financial institutions fraud task force. He has also served as chief of the general crimes section under Bersin. Most recently, he won conviction of a computer hacker who stole and destroyed patient data from a community clinic system. The defendant received the longest sentence for hacking ever given, 63 months. Dembin gave $1,200 to Obama’s campaign.

Gwinn: He left his post as city attorney in 2004 after eight years in office and now he’s the CEO of the YWCA of San Diego County and the volunteer CEO of the San Diego Family Justice Center Foundation. He also leads the Family Justice Center Initiative for the Department of Justice, which has launched a national movement to create one-stop centers for victims of family violence. Gwinn has also worked part-time as a special assistant to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, leading the planning effort to start the East County Family Justice Center. Gwinn recently suffered a defeat when his plan to transfer San Diego’s Family Justice Center, a clearinghouse of services for domestic violence victims, to the YWCA failed. He is a Republican stalwart but gave $420 to Obama.

Jones: The longtime federal prosecutor is very active in community and legal organizations and was rumored to be considering a run against former City Attorney Michael Aguirre in the recent election. Jones is a graduate of LEAD San Diego, which grooms its participants for civic and other leadership positions. He was on the board of the San Diego Food Bank, he’s board chairman of Neighborhood House Association and until recently was on the board of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., which meant that the San Diego U.S. Attorney’s Office had to recuse itself from a grand jury investigation into the city of San Diego redevelopment agency. He contributed $1,000 to the Obama campaign.

Meza: She became the only Latina judge in the state trial courts in San Diego at the time of her appointment in August 2001. Meza attended Yale University and Stanford law school. She was the U.S. attorney’s civil rights coordinator, a litigator in private practice and Bersin’s top deputy. She vigorously defended a decision by Bersin and others to place ads in Mexican newspapers offering rewards for information about corrupt U.S. law enforcement officials. The controversial ads sparked protest by some border inspectors. She gave $675 to the Obama campaign.

Tenorio: Before his career as a prosecutor, Tenorio was an attorney at Federal Defenders of San Diego Inc. for five years. He became a trial attorney for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, and after that spent a year as counsel to then-Deputy Attorney General Holder. He came to San Diego in 1999 and worked as the civil rights coordinator, specializing in hate crimes, police misconduct cases and human trafficking cases, particularly forced labor and sex trafficking.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Randy Jones is a former board member of the Food Bank, not a current member. We regret the error.

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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