Veteran federal prosecutor Laura Duffy appears very likely to become the Obama Administration’s nominee for U.S. attorney in San Diego, according to multiple sources who said she was recently interviewed at the White House and Department of Justice.

The FBI is completing a background check on Duffy, according to federal law enforcement sources and people who have been interviewed about her. The background check and vetting in Washington are final steps before nomination by President Barack Obama.

If all goes well and she is Obama’s pick, her nomination must be approved by the Senate. No other San Diego candidates have been interviewed in Washington as Duffy has, said sources close to the other hopefuls.

Duffy declined to comment Monday. The sources, including five lawyers who are friends or colleagues of Duffy, asked not to be identified because the process is secret.

It remains unclear when the nomination could happen but the recent events suggest the 11-month selection process has shifted to Washington, with an end in sight.

Around the country, the president has nominated 34 U.S. attorney candidates, with 24 confirmations so far. There are 93 U.S. attorneys nationwide and they are typically replaced when a new president takes office.

Duffy, 47, deputy chief of the general crimes section and a former member of the narcotics unit, is best known in legal circles for her successful prosecutions of about 20 leaders of the Arellano Félix drug cartel.

She is a 16-year Justice Department lawyer, with most of those years spent on narcotics-related prosecutions. Now she is deputy chief of the office’s general crimes section, managing a dozen prosecutors. For the 13 years before that, she was prosecuting drug cases, going after large-scale international trafficking organizations.

In that role, Duffy negotiated the extraditions of an unprecedented number of Mexican nationals on drug trafficking charges. And, she negotiated millions of dollars in forfeitures by drug cartels and plea deals of life sentences, as in the case of Francisco Javier Arellano Félix in 2007.

Duffy was hired in San Diego by then-U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin in 1997. Bersin has since been nominated by Obama as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency and the largest under the Homeland Security umbrella. The commissioner is responsible for facilitating trade and traffic while intercepting terrorists, illegal immigrants and drugs at the nation’s airports, seaports and land crossings.

Duffy would replace U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt, who was appointed by the U.S. District Court to be the interim after U.S. Attorney Carol Lam was fired by the Bush Administration in late 2006, ostensibly for favoring white-collar prosecutions at the expense of border-related and gun crimes. Under Hewitt, gun-, drug- and people-trafficking cases have increased significantly.

Considering Duffy’s drug-trafficking expertise, she would likely continue to make border-related prosecutions a top priority, particularly as border violence escalates in Mexico and spills over into the United States.

If Duffy is nominated and confirmed, the office is about to be led by a prosecutor with a reputation for integrity, fairness and moxie, said fellow lawyers, both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

‘The Lady from the Sky’

Criminal defense lawyer David Bartick, who represented Francisco Javier Arellano Félix after the kingpin’s August 2006 arrest aboard his boat off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, recalled that his client repeatedly referred to “the lady from the sky.”

Bartick was perplexed. He thought something was lost in translation, since they had to communicate through an interpreter. “He said when he was arrested aboard his yacht, he was transferred over to a Coast Guard cutter,” Bartick said. “He said he was interviewed by this lady from the sky.”

Weeks later, Bartick finally figured out that Duffy, the prosecutor on the case, had been lowered to the cutter in a basket from a helicopter, to interview Arellano.

“I think it shows the kind of gritty individual that she is,” Bartick said. “She’s not someone who’s going to turn away from a challenge. In her career she’s accepted the most difficult cases, difficult from a safety perspective and difficult in terms of complexity.”

Of course Bartick, who has battled Duffy in court for 15 years on drug cases, was none too pleased that Duffy tried to interview his client, which is legal but not necessarily good for defendants. And there were contentious legal issues surrounding the arrest: Bartick and other defense lawyers claimed the arrest was unlawful because it happened in Mexican waters, while Duffy and her team said it took place in international waters.

In the end it didn’t matter because Duffy negotiated a deal: Arellano agreed to plead guilty to racketeering and the government agreed not to seek the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Bartick said he considers her one of the best prosecutors in the office.

“I can honestly say she is a person of integrity, well respected within the legal community,” Bartick said. “She’s always someone who is very well prepared and because of that she is a tough negotiator. She’s amenable to being creative as well” to resolve cases.

The biggest complaint about Duffy — and this is from fellow prosecutors who mostly support her — is that she has relatively few trials under her belt, and her experience is limited to drug cases.

From Within the Ranks

Still, news of her trip to Washington was welcomed by colleagues, many of whom said they are encouraged by the strong possibility their next leader will come from within their own ranks.

Duffy is a Democrat who gave $770 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008 plus $250 to the Democratic National Committee and $150 to Howard Dean in 2004, according to public records.

Duffy’s name was submitted to the president by Sen. Barbara Boxer, who relied on a committee in San Diego to make recommendations. The committee has not made its recommendations public.

Duffy’s selection follows a secret process that was mired in behind-the-scenes controversy, most of which will likely never be made public.

Sources have said Duffy’s interview occurred in June, weeks after the interviewing process appeared to be complete and the committee had favored another candidate, private attorney Jerry Coughlan. Sources said some prosecutors opposed his appointment, which played a role in Duffy’s subsequent interview. Boxer’s office and the committee aren’t saying what happened.

Duffy graduated from Iowa State University in 1988 and Creighton University School of Law in Omaha in 1993. She was hired by the Justice Department the same year.

Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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