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Business Observer Thursday, Mar. 5, 2009 12 years ago

Re-Made Man

Brian Albritton, one of the Gulf Coast's preeminent experts in defending those charged with white-collar crimes, has moved to the other table: Prosecution.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Brian Albritton, one of the Gulf Coast's preeminent experts in defending those charged with white-collar crimes, has moved to the other table: Prosecution.

On a midnight drive from Tampa to West Palm Beach a few years ago, A. Brian Albritton was holding court on one of his favorite topics: 20th century German philosophy.

Albritton and a passenger, a fellow attorney and colleague, were engaged in a vigorous debate about deep thinkers such as Karl-Otto Apel and Hans-Georg Gadamer. While the pitch-black chatter bored the duo's legal assistant sitting in the backseat to tears, the debate was so spirited that they forgot to pull over for gas. By the time they got to the East Coast, they were riding without air conditioning and going easy on the gas pedal to conserve fuel.

It was vintage Albritton.

His friends, colleagues and former employers tell similar stories. No matter the task or cause, Albritton goes into it with an all out high-quotient of passion, relentlessness and academic fortitude. That goes from attending punk-rock concerts with his teenage sons to cooking for Billy Graham while attending divinity school to cracking courtroom one-liners.

“You cannot be around Brian without being impressed with his sincerity,” says Bill Hamilton, an attorney with Holland & Knight in Tampa that has known and worked with Albritton since 1993. “And he immediately makes his intellectual prowess felt.”

Now the citizens and businesses of the counties on the Gulf Coast, not to mention 20-something other counties in the state, from Naples to the Florida-Georgia border, are about to get a taste of Albritton, 51.

That's because the Tampa native and graduate of New College in Sarasota was recently sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, the largest of the three Sunshine State federal court districts. It's also one of the largest judicial districts in the Southeast in terms of land mass and population.

Reverse approach
The appointment is unique for several reasons beyond Albritton's qualifications and background. For starters, Albritton is one of the only U.S. Attorneys out of 94 nationwide to be nominated under the Bush Administration and retained — so far — under the Obama Administration.

Indeed, the appointment was apolitical, or at least as non-partisan as a Washington D.C. appointment can be.

Albritton, a registered Republican, says he's not politically active and unlike several other U.S. Attorneys nationwide, his appointment isn't a reward for fundraising or knowing the right people. U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson, a Republican and a Democrat, respectively, jointly picked Albritton for the nomination after a committee appointed by the senators vetted his background last summer.

The process weaved its way through Washington, where the full Senate swore Albritton in Oct. 15. Standing in the Senate chambers that day was a real aw-shucks moment for Albritton, who replaces Robert O'Neil, a veteran federal prosecutor who filled in as interim U.S. Attorney for about a year.

“It is really kind of simple,” says Albritton. “There was a need and I thought I could contribute. I didn't do it for politics.”

The appointment, however, is also somewhat unusual for its career trajectory. To accept the U.S. attorney position, Albritton gave up a big salary at Holland & Knight, where he was a litigation partner for 18 years, specializing in white-collar criminal defense and patent and trademark infringement cases. Many times in the legal profession, that career move goes the other way, when a young prosecutor becomes a defense attorney, usually to make more money.

Albritton is taking the reverse approach, which makes sense to many who know him.
“Brian is an extremely knowledgeable, experienced and fair-minded attorney,” says Brad Kimbro, an executive partner at Tampa-based Holland & Knight. “He is the consummate professional.”

Cooking a future
In the early and mid-1970s, however, Albritton was the consummate wanderer, trying to figure out what to do with his life.

When he was 16, after just one year at Plant City High School in Hillsborough County, Albritton left the area on a hitchhiking trip. He ended up in Colorado, where he took some college classes at a branch of U.S. International University.

The experience opened up Albritton to what has become his life-long pursuit of challenging himself intellectually. He soon came back home and in 1975 he found just the place for his burgeoning curiosity: New College in Sarasota.
The school was known for its wide variety of philosophy-related class offerings and its aversion to letter grades as opposed to the overall learning experience.

Albritton got a job as a short order cook at Cafe L'Europe on St. Armand's Circle while attending New College. The sous-chef down the line from him was Raymond Arpke, who now owns Euphemia Haye, a prominent restaurant on Longboat Key.

Arpke chuckles at the thought of Albritton becoming a distinguished attorney in charge of prosecuting federal crimes in 35 Florida counties. Not that Arpke thought Albritton wasn't capable of doing anything he wanted in life, but it's a long way from long hair dude smoking filter-less cigarettes — two Albritton staples of the '70s.

“Back then,” says Arpke, “he called himself an existentialist.”

After graduating New College, Albritton headed to Harvard Divinity School, where he earned a Master's degree in theological studies. He says he enrolled in the program to learn about religion, not to become ordained. And in the process, he used his newfound cooking skills to get a job in the school's kitchen.

That led to a job helping to prepare meals for a diverse group of visitors, including Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama's support staff.

Divinity school led to law school; Albritton eared his JD degree from Boston College Law School in 1988. After a two-year stint as a clerk for U.S. Middle District of Florida Judge William Terrell Hodges in Tampa, Albritton took a position with Holland & Knight.

Top-secret clearance
Returning to Tampa brought back a childhood love for Albritton: Cycling. After years of being off the bike, Albritton went back at it with the same vigor he displays in the courtroom. Says Albritton: “I'm wild about cycling.”

He owns a Roubaix, a carbon road bike that can cost up to $3,000 and he can be seen pedaling it around South Tampa or St. Petersburg on most weekends for his 50- or 60-mile rides. He recently brought the bike to Tallahassee, where in between visiting his mom he rode around the state capital.

While Albritton says his clerkship with Judge Hodges was his most formative in the law, it was at Holland & Knight where he grew into his own as a lawyer.

Albritton's major cases included serving as the lead defense attorney for Jeffrey Rondeau, a U.S. Army Sergeant charged with treason-related offenses in the early 1990s. Rondeau, a onetime Tampa resident stationed in Germany, was accused of giving away Army and other U.S. government secrets to the Czechoslovakian government.

In preparing a defense for Rondeau, Albritton traveled to Germany, where he interviewed other alleged conspirators, a trip that involved receiving top-secret clearance from the U.S. military. Rondeau pled guilty to some of the charges and was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1994. “That was my first big case,” says Albritton.

Closer to home, Albritton worked as lead defense counsel on dozens of cases, many of which carried a theme of protecting or restoring reputations.

In the summer of 1998, for instance, Albritton represented Secily Wilson, a TV news reporter for the Tampa Fox affiliate. Wilson was accused of kicking and scratching a Florida Highway Patrol trooper while resisting arrest after being pulled over for speeding. A Sumter County jury acquitted Wilson of the charges and she later won a civil suit in the case.

But the majority of Albritton's criminal defense work, which focused on representing businesses and executives, was about staying out of a courtroom. He was constantly working behind the scenes for his clients, talking with prosecutors and investigators to try to prevent an investigation from turning into an indictment.

“Because an indictment can put a company out of a business,” says Albritton, even if the case is won in a courtroom.

The courtroom, when Albritton does get there, is another place he has shown himself to rise above the standard attorney. Both colleagues and those who sat in opposition praise Albritton's work ethic and deep understanding of a case and the pertinent case law.

But to John Guard, a Holland & Knight attorney who considers Albritton a mentor, the U.S. Attorney's best courtroom moves are his one-liners. “He has kind of got a real dry sense of humor,” Guard says. “He can shift the mood of the courtroom.”

Growing caseload
The more serious business facing Albritton is the challenge of running the prosecutions of the Middle District of Florida, a diverse collection of agencies, departments and bureaucrats. He oversees more than 100 attorneys that are broken into criminal, civil and appellate divisions.

Albritton has recently begun traveling the district for law enforcement listening breakfasts, where any department that might come into contact with his office sends a liaison. It's a packed room at each stop, with everyone from county sheriff's deputies working on joint federal-local investigations to U.S. immigration and drug enforcement agents.

Albritton's chief task is to prosecute crimes during a time when the office is in a growth spurt. The district prosecuted 1,384 cases in 2008, a 19% increase over the 1,163 prosecutions in 2007.

In Albritton's four months in the office, those prosecutions have been varied. The list includes the continuation of pursuing defendants in an $82 million mortgage loan fraud that originated in Sarasota to recently indicting eight alleged violent gang members in Pasco county on federal gun and drug charges.

Albritton says that so far he is just trying to keep up with O'Neil, the interim U.S. Attorney he took over for who now runs the office's criminal division. But in keeping with the times of the day, Albritton foresees an increase coming in investigations and prosecutions in two specific areas — mortgage fraud and white-collar prosecutions.

Consider it a warning from the former longhaired existentialist turned bike-toting top prosecutor.

“He is a renaissance man,” says Hamilton, the Holland & Knight attorney who debated 20th century German philosophy with Albritton on the midnight car ride. “It's an overused expression, but it really fits Brian.”


Individual. A. Brian Albritton, U.S. Attorney, Middle District of Florida.
Location. The Middle District of Florida covers 35 Sunshine State counties, including the entire Gulf Coast region.
Key. Albritton is the fourth U.S. Attorney for the district since 2002, but the second to be presidentially appointed and not serving on an interim basis.

U.S. Attorney's Office,
Middle District of Florida

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida covers 35 counties in the state. The headquarters is in Tampa and it has four regional offices, including one in Fort Myers.

A. Brian Albritton, who was sworn in as the district's lead attorney in October, is the fourth U.S. Attorney to run the office since 2002. The others:

• Paul Perez: Appointed by President Bush in March, 2002. Perez resigned in March 2007 to accept a position as chief compliance officer with Jacksonville-based insurance firm Fidelity National Financial. Perez left his position the same day former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales came under criticism for his role in firing eight federal prosecutors in other states. Perez said his resignation was for personal reasons and not related to that controversy;

• Jim Klindt: The first assistant under Perez. He was named Acting U.S. Attorney after Perez left and held the position for eight months, until he was named a magistrate judge in Jacksonville;

• Robert O'Neil: The first assistant under Klindt and a longtime criminal prosecutor in the office. O'Neil held the interim U.S. Attorney position for a year, beginning in October, 2007. O'Neil is now the head of the district's criminal prosecution division.

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