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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 26, 2004 18 years ago

Lawyer of First Resort (Tampa edition)

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Prominent people turn to Greg Kehoe when they need a skilled defense advocate.

Lawyer of First Resort (Tampa edition)

Prominent people turn to Greg Kehoe when they need a skilled defense advocate.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Greg Kehoe did a good job. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia acknowledged his work in the prosecution of Croatian Gen. Tihomir Blaskic with a guilty verdict. The United Nations court sentenced the Croatian Defense Council commander to 45 years in prison for the atrocities his troops committed against Muslim civilians in central Bosnia in 1993.

It's now been about five years since Kehoe last sifted through the aftermath of one of the most horrific instances of genocide since the Holocaust. Firmly rooted today in private practice, the Tampa attorney never really escapes his experience with such carnage - the mass graves, scorched villages, eyewitness accounts.

Those who know him, though, say the experience heightened the legal acumen he acquired over the years as a former assistant U.S. attorney. They say that's what makes him so highly prized now as a lawyer of first resort for so many prominent people - a college president, a circuit judge, a public defender. Then there are those he shields from the public record by deftly negotiating the traps that lie in the federal and state grand jury processes.

"He's a top-notch attorney," says longtime friend Robert O'Neill, criminal division chief of the U.S. attorney's office for the Middle District of a Florida. "He has a great courtroom presence. He's just a bright person."

Life-changing experience

The impact of prosecuting war crimes was life changing. Kehoe spent almost five years from 1995-99 prosecuting Bosnian war criminals. The experience influenced his decision to leave public service and become chief of the trial division at Tampa's James Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich PA.

"I went back into government service for a bit," he recalls about the few months after he returned to the U.S. from the war tribunal headquarters in Hague, The Netherlands. "It was difficult to go back and do what you had done before the experience.

"I had been to crime scenes before," he says. "I had never been to crime scenes where there was the extent of carnage that was in Bosnia. It is a life-changing experience. I had never seen the extent to which man could inflict human misery on others."

Kehoe tells of Abdullah Ahmic, a Muslim man from the village of Ahmici in central Bosnia. At Blaskic's trial, Ahmic testified about April 16, 1993.

"When I met him, he was a man looking for a reason to live," Kehoe says of Ahmic, whose entire family perished that day.

At 5:30 that April morning, soldiers from the Croatian Defense Council stormed into Ahmici killing 103 men, women and children, according to war tribunal testimony published on a U.N. Internet Web site (www.un.org/icty). Soldiers not only burned 180 of 200 Muslim-occupied homes but they also deliberately aimed flamethrowers at inhabitants. Then they destroyed the mosque.

"The methods of attack and the scale of the crimes committed against the Muslim population or the edifices symbolizing their culture sufficed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the attack was aimed at the Muslim civilian population," according to tribunal transcripts. "Several international observers who went to the village a few days after the attack on Ahmici reported finding 'a phenomenon of a ferocity and a brutality almost impossible to describe.' "

Closure came hard for Kehoe as he dealt with volumes detailing such brutality.

"I don't think you ever resolve anything," he says about what the tribunal accomplished there. "It allows people to see what neighbors had done to one another in the name of religion. The only way these crimes will cease is if there is a public reckoning.

"After the Holocaust, people said, 'Never again,' " he says. "Based on my experience, we have not crossed over the river Jordan. Genocidal conduct continues to this day."

Emotions unseen

Rarely does the public see the compassion Kehoe holds for the victims, O'Neill says. Kehoe is typically known for his aggressive, no-nonsense prosecutorial style that he now uses so effectively as a private advocate.

"He's got all the lines," O'Neill says. "If you see him at trial, it's always the same thing: 'He was all over him like a cheap suit.' He has all those New York colloquialisms down pat."

But Kehoe's compassion is not weighted down by self-pity, O'Neill says. A fellow New Yorker, O'Neill recalls his friend's reaction to Sept. 11, 2001.

"Greg comes from a (N.Y.) neighborhood where the neighbors are pretty much blue-collar, public servant, dominated by firemen and police officers," O'Neill says. "A number of people in the police and fire departments killed in the World Trade Center came from Greg's neighborhood. We spoke at length about this. You could see Greg was absolutely moved by that, but not in way that was morose. He was proud they would be willing to do that. In other words, when bad things happen and everybody runs, there are other people who run to the event. He was very proud of that."

There are times when Kehoe doesn't hold back. That's what happened while representing the estate of Clearwater attorney Janet Gifford-Myers and Rick Dodge, a former assistant Pinellas County administrator, against ACS State & Local Solutions Inc., formerly known as Lockheed Martin IMS Corp.

Gifford-Myers and Dodge alleged ACS State misused public dollars as administrator of a welfare-to-work program, according to a federal lawsuit Kehoe filed on their behalf. They claim the Lockheed Martin affiliate then engaged in a smear campaign. Gifford-Myers later committed suicide; Dodge developed high blood pressure and clinically diagnosed anxiety.

"Lockheed Martin's IMS' harassment of these two whistle blowers is an outrage that shocks the conscience," Kehoe said a statement released last year.

Judging from those who know him, Kehoe seems to know which button to push at the right time. Tampa attorney Lynn Cole, another former assistant U.S. attorney, shares that sentiment.

Although they served at different times, Kehoe and Cole share the same circle of friends. She also knows him from adversarial proceedings.

"He's one of the finest lawyers and most ethical attorneys I've ever met," she says. "He always does his homework, so he knows the facts. He's a brilliant strategist. He's also unfailingly polite, but can go for the jugular in a polite way."

It's those qualities that makes Kehoe so attractive as a defense lawyer, says Tampa attorney Gary Trombley, a longtime friend and another former assistant U.S. attorney.

"He is a very capable and tenacious trial lawyer," he says. "He is fearless, so to speak, in the courtroom and capable of handling almost any prosecution or defense."

Those skills earned Kehoe much respect. "He's not only well respected by his colleagues in the local bay area, but he's also well-known and respected in Washington, D.C., as evidenced by the fact he was selected to serve on the Hague prosecution," Trombley says. "I think the most interesting thing about Greg, other than his trial skills and intellectual ability, is his ability to transition into other areas of law other than criminal and is very capable in doing so."

National presence

That is evident with Kehoe's work as general counsel to the Judicial Review Commission on Foreign Asset Control. This appointment came just after he joined the Tampa law firm.

The U.S. House of Representatives created the commission through the federal Intelligence Authorization Act for 2000. It reviews perceived violations of individual rights under the federal International Emergency Powers Act and the Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

"It's a test for balancing the laws protecting citizens but ensuring the U.S. has the ability to freeze assets of individuals giving support to narcotics kingpins or other potential terrorist activities," he says. "You have to walk a fine line when you want to give the government the right to freeze assets but also protect the rights of individuals. It was a lot of work in a very short period."

But that's what federal officials have come to expect from Kehoe. He delivers. That's evident from his work from 1983-95 as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Not long after graduating from the St. John's University School of Law, Kehoe earned a job as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Mark A. Costantino in the Eastern District of New York. His work there earned him a job with the U.S. attorney's office in the antitrust division's honors program. Much of his work occurred behind closed doors in grand jury proceedings.

After a short time there, the federal agency transferred Kehoe to the Southern District of Florida. By 1986, he'd earned the job as chief of the district's northern division.

From 1987-89, Kehoe directed the highly publicized prosecution of 12 members of the Outlaws motorcycle gang under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. "Everyone was convicted," he says.

That work earned him a promotion as first assistant U.S. attorney, second in command, of the Middle District of Florida and a transfer to Tampa.

Kehoe then took charge of a tough assignment - investigating allegations of money laundering against local officials with the Pakistan-based Bank of Credit & Commerce International. Years later Congressional inquiries revealed the bank as a corrupt organization that profited handsomely from the financing of illegal arms and drug sales. This is where Kehoe and his fellow prosecutors received some public criticism for not digging deep enough into the bank's operations and its links to the U.S. banking industry. But he responds simply enough to such criticism.

"Ours was the only successful prosecution where people went to jail as a result of their money-laundering crimes," he says.

Following work in the BCCI prosecution, Kehoe received an unsolicited call from a law school alum, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, then a Washington lawyer.

Leon recommended Kehoe as a deputy chief minority counsel to the U.S. House committee investigating the "October Surprise" - then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's purported arms deal with Iran for release of 52 hostages right before his election as president. He spent a year with the committee before returning as chief federal prosecutor in the Middle District of Florida.

Lawyer of first resort

It's no surprise Kehoe quickly became a lawyer of first resort for some of the most prominent names in the Tampa Bay area.

Thirteenth Circuit Judge Gregory Holder turned to Kehoe as co-counsel when the Judicial Qualifications Commission accused him of ethics violations. Kehoe and Tampa attorney David Weinstein are waging an all-out battle to defend Holder against allegations he plagiarized an essay required for his promotion to colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

"We work together very well," Kehoe says of Weinstein. "It's not a matter of who gets the billing. This is a matter of working together."

Then there was his successful defense of Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne M. Holt, who faced possible censure for alleged ethics violations. She faced 13 charges during a three-week administrative trail.

"The biggest challenge was getting across to the administrative law judge exactly what great lengths Julie Holt went through to comply with the law," he says. "At the end of the day everyone acknowledged, even the (state) Commission on Ethics, Julie Holt does and continues to do a good job as public defender for the 13th Circuit. The woman works 80 hours a week. She's implemented programs no one else has done before."

College President Judy Genshaft called Kehoe to represent the University of South Florida when federal prosecutors issued a subpoena in connection with the federal investigation into Professor Sami Al-Arian's alleges ties to Middle East terrorists.

Then there are people like cardio-thoracic surgeons John C. Brock, Edward G. Izzo and Mark J. Alkire. Kehoe represents them in a pending wrongful termination action against St. Joseph's Hospital in the 13th Circuit.

Despite such pressures, Kehoe takes a pragmatic approach to his defense work. "Anything that I work on I try to give 100%," he says. "That's the best I can do. I try not to give any client or entity I represent anything but my best."

When possible, Kehoe retreats to the Gulf Coast beaches. It's the one place he can escape the difficult cases he has prosecuted and the stress that comes from being a lawyer of first resort.

"The beach is a very peaceful place," he says. "When you work in the legal field, it can be stressful at times. And going to the beach is a peaceful place to unwind, read and gather yourself. I don't get there enough."

Gregory W. Kehoe

Age: 49

Title: Partner

Firm: James Hoyer Newcomer & Smiljanich PA.

Hometown: New York City; Tampa resident since 1989.

Personal: Married eight years to Lonnie. They have one daughter, Elizabeth, 7.

Education: AB, 1976, Boston College; JD, 1979, St. John's University School of Law.

Career: Burns Jackson Miller Summit & Jacoby, New York, 1979-80; law clerk, U.S. District Judge Mark A. Costantino, Eastern District of New York, 1980-82; U.S. Dept. of Justice, antitrust division, honors program, 1982-83; assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, 1983-89, serving as chief of the district's northern division, 1986-89; first assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, 1989-92; deputy chief minority counsel, Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. House of Representative, 1992-93; first assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, 1993-95; trial attorney, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, 1995-1999.

Favorite place in the Tampa Bay area: The beaches.

Favorite place to eat: Shula's Steak House.

Last book read for relaxation: "A Conspiracy of Paper," by David Liss; and "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East," by David Fromkin.

Guiding philosophy: "You do the best you can in everything you do; then let things play out as they play."

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