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Friday, May 15, 2009 | The U.S. attorney selection committee in San Diego has recently interviewed two candidates and is scheduled to interview a third on Saturday, with a decision possible as early as next week.

Those who made the short list are defense attorney Jerry 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, according to sources familiar with the process. Coughlin has yet to meet with the committee.

It appears the panel has scheduled no other interviews and is no longer accepting applications. At least eight San Diego lawyers applied for the post. The process is secret.

It’s unclear how many candidates the committee will recommend to Sen. Barbara Boxer. The senator will then decide who will be offered to President Obama for nomination. The nominee must be confirmed by the Senate.

During the process, the committee reached out to at least three lawyers outside the pool of applicants, 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. Attanasio declined to comment; the others could not be reached.

The three applicants who landed interviews couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Coughlan clearly has the biggest public profile of the trio, and as a result has more vocal supporters and detractors. He was a federal prosecutor for 10 years before becoming a prominent criminal defense attorney in 1983, and is rumored to be the frontrunner — to the chagrin of some within the U.S. Attorney’s office.

He is widely believed to be a successful and talented lawyer who has done battle with federal prosecutors on some of the biggest cases in the district in recent years. But along the way he has made enemies in the office because he is perceived by some to be arrogant and divisive. Several have said there would be resignations by senior lawyers in the office if he were selected.

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.

Before that Coughlan was in the media spotlight in connection with his defense of a Superior Court judge convicted of corruption 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.

Not to be confused with Coughlan, Coughlin (pronounced COG-lin) has had a long career in the U.S. Attorney’s office, serving most recently as narcotics chief. He has overseen successful prosecutions of several brothers and top lieutenants from the feared Arellano-Felix Mexican drug cartel and high-ranking associates and members of the Mexican Mafia.

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. One of his legal opponents in that case was Coughlan.

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.

Lilia Garcia, chairwoman of La Raza’s endorsement committee, said the vetting process was thorough, involving interviews with about 18 judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and support staff, plus an interview with the group’s board.

At the end, Garcia and her colleagues found the little-known Kelly to be more than worthy of La Raza’s support.

“We were extremely impressed with his background, she said. “He is definitely qualified. We found he was greatly respected by both the federal bench, his own colleagues and his defense colleagues who have opposed him in court. He is fair minded and has a deep commitment to public service.”

Kelly, the son of a Polish immigrant mother who survived a Nazi concentration camp, was valedictorian in high school and college and graduated with the highest academic honors, friends said.

Garcia noted that Kelly is bilingual in a border region, and is committed to equal rights for all — one of La Raza’s key values.

“We got back glowing recommendations about him both on personal skills, his professional background and his educational background. He has just the type of temperament and demeanor to be U.S. attorney in San Diego,” Garcia said.

It was unclear whether the other candidates have received endorsements.

Selection committee members include Chairwoman Candace Carroll, an accomplished lawyer, ACLU board member and former president of California Women Lawyers; former San Diego U.S. Attorney Greg Vega; former California Superior Court Judge and ex-Assistant U.S. Attorney Annie Gutierrez; Ex-University of San Diego provost Sister Sally Furay; former Justice Department attorney Janice Brown; state Deputy Attorney General Erika Hiramatsu; and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Fellmeth, now a law professor at the University of San Diego.

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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