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Do The Right Thing

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:06 a.m. February 11, 2011
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Who. Robert O'Neill, U.S. Attorney, Middle District of Florida
Where. The district covers 35 Florida counties, including the Gulf Coast.
Key. O'Neill, who served as interim U.S. Attorney in 2008, has worked in the office since 1993.

The tiny weight room some called a gym in a corner of the federal prosecutor's office in Miami was actually a hotbed of legal theory in the late 1980s.

It was there, in midnight gabfests mixed with exercise, where a group of young prosecutors for the U.S. Attorney's office strategized about their cases. Ingloriously known in South Florida as the Cocaine Cowboys era, the trials were a variety of alleged drug dealers, motorcycle gangsters and global swindlers.

The gung-ho crew of prosecutors included Greg Kehoe, who later led the lead U.S. case in the Iraqi tribunal formed to prosecute Saddam Hussein. “We were all just young guys trying case after case after case,” says Kehoe, now a Tampa litigator. “We all learned so much back then.”

Robert O'Neill, a 20-something, fast-talking, quick-thinking New Yorker, an attorney who impressed nearly everyone he met with his indomitable work ethic, was part of the ambitious group. O'Neill, now 53, reached the pinnacle of a prosecutor's career Sept. 29, when the U.S. Senate confirmed him as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District.

The Tampa-based district, which covers half of Florida's population, runs the entire Gulf Coast and stretches through Orlando and Jacksonville. The office, which has 250 employees and 100 attorneys, prosecutes criminal and civil cases. Its annual budget is more than $20 million,

The appointment and confirmation of O'Neill, a onetime interim U.S. Attorney for the office and its former head of criminal prosecutions, was widely praised in local legal circles. O'Neill replaces A. Brian Albritton, who resigned to return to private practice in Tampa.

“Bobby is a prosecutor with the highest ideals imaginable,” says Pat Doherty, a St. Petersburg defense attorney who has argued several trials against O'Neill, including a bribery case against former Tampa housing director Steve LaBrake. “He's highly ethical.”

Even one of O'Neill's top competitors for the position, Jacksonville attorney Harry Shorstein, says the Senate got it right. “I have a great amount of respect for him,” says Shorstein, the State Attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties from 1991 to 2008. “His service in the federal system and his experience there made him a more qualified candidate.”

Crime fighter

But O'Neill's accession to the position is more than a story about a prosecutor who deftly melds a zeal for justice with a strict adherence to the law. The story is also part Horatio Alger. It stars a boy born to immigrant parents, a boy who grew up on the streets of the Bronx, where he honed his competitive side and quickly learned about right and wrong.

The competitive streak was an ally for the young O'Neill. It's how he pushed himself through high school, college and law school. The competitive fire came out in Miami, too, when O'Neill captained the U.S. Attorney's office softball and football teams, squads filled with type-A, high-achievers.

Meanwhile, O'Neill's sense of right and wrong coats almost everything he does.

It's why he and his family took in a few teenagers from rough neighborhoods in Ireland for a summer. And it's why O'Neill loves a good mob movie, especially ones with clearly defined heroes.

O'Neill, one of 93 U.S. Attorneys who report to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, could also hold a unique distinction in the Department of Justice: He might be the only top prosecutor who co-owns a bar.

O'Neill bought an interest in Four Green Fields in Tampa in 1997. The bar, where Irish singer Sinead O'Connor once played a concert in the parking lot, is a popular after-work spot for attorneys. O'Neill was among the regulars before he bought a piece of it.

“It has been both great and a great source of consternation,” says O'Neill, who stepped down as a corporate officer for the entity that owns the bar after his appointment.

The big picture

Still, the challenges of bar ownership can be a breeze compared to O'Neill's day job. For starters, an overarching complexity O'Neill faces is the sheer size of the district, one of the largest in the country. Says O'Neill: “Every place [in the district] has its own values and issues.”

One issue universal to the district, however, if not the state, is mortgage fraud. “The problem is so widespread,” says O'Neill. “It's huge.”

O'Neill says prosecuting mortgage fraud and white-collar crime will be a staple on his watch, much like it was under Albritton. And O'Neill brings a no-nonsense, fair-but-firm leadership style in pursuit of his goals. For example, an attorney in the office who O'Neill says had a bravado that didn't match the performance was recently demoted.

“I had to say you're not that good,” O'Neill says. “You're not as good as you think you are.”

O'Neill plans to bring that kind of tough love to the entire office. In his first four months on the job, O'Neill says he has been unpleasantly surprised by the amount of employees who value a government paycheck over dedication to a higher cause.

“Some people in the system are here for the wrong reasons,” says O'Neill. “If you are going to be a federal agent or a federal prosecutor, it's a great job, but it comes with great responsibilities.”

O'Neill says he will look to either motivate or move out those employees.

'A phenomenal prosecutor'

Motivation to succeed has rarely been an issue for O'Neill.

His mother, a housekeeper born in Germany and his father, an Irish immigrant who worked as a janitor in New York City's garment district, instilled the work ethic. O'Neill has two brothers. One went on to become an attorney and another is a retired New York City police officer.

O'Neill played a lot of sports growing up and got into the occasional bit of trouble. He considers his childhood idyllic, although the family was on the low end of lower-middle class. “You could say we were poor, but I never felt that way,” says O'Neill. “We had what everyone else had.”

O'Neill graduated from Fordham University in New York City and New York Law School. He was hired as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan after law school, a job he held from 1982 to 1986. Crime, especially violent crime, was at a high point in New York in the mid-1980s, so O'Neill had no shortage of interesting work, from muggings to rape trials.

After four years in New York, O'Neill was one of several young rising prosecutors nationwide recruited to work for the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami. Just like New York, an interesting and high-volume caseload awaited O'Neill in South Florida.

O'Neill became fast friends with colleagues like Kehoe and Tom Mulvihill, who remains an assistant attorney in the office. “Bobby was a phenomenal prosecutor,” says Mulvihill. “He's one of the best I've ever worked with.”

O'Neill left the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami in 1990. He spent a few years in private practice, with a focus on medical malpractice cases.

Then, in 1993, the lure of prosecuting cases brought O'Neill to Washington D.C., for a job with the Office of the Independent Counsel. The now-defunct agency was formed to prosecute politically charged cases where other attorneys had a conflict of interest.

O'Neill's first case there was a headline grabber: He successfully prosecuted Al Gore's cousin, Deborah Gore Dean, on conspiracy and perjury charges for her role in a scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

O'Neill moved to Tampa to work for the U.S. Attorney's office in 1993. In 1999 he was appointed to run the office's special prosecutions and public corruption division. He was named head of the criminal division in 2002 and has since taken on several high-profile cases, including the successful prosecution of actor Wesley Snipes on tax evasion charges.

Grueling process

Courtroom clashes shifted to the political battlefield in the summer of 2009, though, when President Barack Obama announced he was going to replace Albritton, who was nominated by President George W. Bush. Several people, in and out of the office, urged O'Neill to apply for the position.

O'Neill hesitated at first, then, given his nearly two decades in the office, he thought he could improve some parts of it. “I've never been a political person,” he says. “I've always been a prosecutor.”

The list of 11 applicants included Shorstein from Jacksonville; Venice attorney Sandra Wiseman; state Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa; and Roger Handberg, who ran the Orlando office of the middle district. A nominating commission met with and vetted the applicants, then named O'Neill, Shorstein and Handberg as finalists. Florida's U.S. Senators, Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, were assigned to submit one name to the president for nomination.

It was a grueling process. It included intensive background checks and dozens of interviews. And it took more than a year to go from finalist to a confirmation hearing in front of the full U.S. Senate.

O'Neill says he stuck to a major theme in his interviews: fairness. He spoke often of the two rules every young prosecutor was instructed to follow in Manhattan in the 1980s, when legendary District Attorney Robert Morgenthau ran the office.

The first rule, says O'Neill, was to “always do the right thing.” The second rule, he says, was there were no other rules if you did the right thing.

“The tenor of that office was fairness,” says O'Neill. “We had a lot of power and we had to use it fairly.”

Stay strong

Robert O'Neill, who has put away bad guys for 30 years, rarely gets intimidated.

But O'Neill admits he was awed by two people who sat opposite him in an Orlando conference room in June 2009, when he ran the criminal prosecution division of the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa. The two people were Florida's U.S. Senators, Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez.

The senators were interviewing O'Neill for the position of U.S. Attorney of the Middle District — a position O'Neill would ultimately get. When O'Neill shook Martinez' hand after the meeting he told the senator that as a poor kid from the Bronx, he never thought he'd be in a room with two U.S. senators.

Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who spoke little English when he came to the United States as a 16-year-old in 1962, patted O'Neill on the back and told him not to worry: He never thought he'd be in a room with a possible U.S. attorney.

O'Neill shares that story with others as a key life lesson: Self-confidence and the courage of your convictions can go a long way, no matter who you are talking to or what you are up against.

Exclusive club
Robert O'Neill joined a small fraternity last year when he was confirmed as U.S. Attorney for the Middle District in Tampa, one of 93 U.S. Attorneys in the country.

O'Neill is now on the cusp of joining a second elite group of attorneys, the American College of Trial Lawyers. The college is a Hall of Fame-like organization for the nation's top trial attorneys. While the membership count there is 5,700, O'Neill is still in some rare territory.

For one, membership can never be more than 1% of the total lawyer population of a state. A perspective fellow in the college must be nominated by a current fellow and there is an extensive background check for all nominees.

Entrance is even tougher for O'Neill because the college rarely nominates prosecutors. In fact, out of the 212 current fellows in Florida, there are no active federal prosecutors and only one attorney who works for a state attorney's office.


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