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'Zero In'

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:56 a.m. January 25, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Law
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Robert O'Neill, the top federal prosecutor on the Gulf Coast, faces a budget puzzle tricky enough to make the brainiest math wonk cry.

The dilemma: O'Neill's office, the Middle District of Florida, has the second-largest population out of 94 federal districts in the country, but it's the 16th largest in personnel. “We are not New York City,” O'Neill says. “We are not Chicago or L.A. I get that, obviously, and I'm not saying tomorrow we need to be the second-largest office, but it would be nice to get a little more resources.”

O'Neill's Tampa-based district stretches south to Fort Myers-Naples and north and east to Orlando and Jacksonville. That's why he says the personnel discrepancy can be a daily hurdle. For example, O'Neill could only assign one federal agent to a widespread mortgage fraud case in Sarasota that ultimately covered more than $200 million in fraudulent loans and close to 20 defendants.

“That's not really the way to do it,” O'Neill says. “We all know over the years that the force multipliers, having task forces and getting people together is what really makes us work best. Thankfully we had the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office intimately involved in (this case.) They were the guys running it.”

Despite the budgetary challenges, a top goal of the office in 2013, says O'Neill, much like it was in 2012, is to reach out to the business community. Not only to prosecute alleged criminals, but to work with pro-business groups on how people can avoid fraud, Ponzi schemes and other financial scams.

Named U.S. Attorney in September 2010, O'Neill says he has no intention to add to the mound of regulatory hurdles business owners and executives already face. He does, however, intend to prosecute wrongdoers whose actions make it harder for the bulk of the business world. To do that, the district leans on 243 employees, including 114 attorneys. It has an annual operating budget of $21.5 million.

“We understand that 99% of the business community are 100% ethical, hardworking and do everything right,” says O'Neill. “But it's that 1%, whether it be in the legal profession, the medical profession, whatever, who are the bad apples. That's who we have to zero in on.”
O'Neill recently discussed his goals for 2013, in addition to some past cases, with the Business Observer. Here's an edited transcript of the interview.

What are some challenges you will face this year?

The biggest challenge from 2012 is going to occur in 2013 again. It's simply the spending problems with the federal government. It's the budgetary constraints that we are operating under.

For instance, we've been under a hiring and spending freeze for a couple of years now. Fortunately this district has so much statistical data showing our accomplishments that they have allowed us to at least replenish positions lost. So in this hiring freeze, in the last year and a half or so, we have hired 16 federal prosecutors. We are really thankful that the Department of Justice has let us do that.

How has the lack of prosecutors impacted the district, in terms of cases not pursued or over-worked attorneys?

Candidly, I don't think people are stressed out. I think some work extremely hard. It's like all things: Some people coast a little. It's my job to kind of light a fire under certain people as much as we can in government.

But I think what we are finding is that we don't get to certain cases. And the cases you don't get to unfortunately are going to be the big business cases. They are the ones that take a lot more resources. A lot of the districts, say up in the Northeast, will have multiple attorneys assigned to particular investigations. We traditionally have not done that down here, and it would be nice to have a couple of more bodies to throw another lawyer on a case to help out.

How else has the lack of prosecutors shifted your priorities and goals?

Because we were understaffed so much with the hiring freeze, we had to take people out of criminal and assign them to civil. Our civil caseload doesn't stop. Our civil caseload is far and away the busiest in the nation and we had to put people in there. (The Middle District collected $44.65 million in civil actions in fiscal 2012. The district also had the seventh-highest amount of whistleblower cases in the country during the year, which are civil cases officially filed under the False Claims Act.)

Why is the civil caseload so busy?

A lot of law firms are now seeing the possibility of making a lot of money on (False Claims Act) cases, and it's thought to be very clean work. You have a businessperson who works in a business and sees some improprieties, in health care for instance. That person comes and says “I'll be willing to wear a wire and I'll be willing to get documents.” It's almost the same thing we do but with a private context. So the lawyers have a financial incentive to do that and they feel like they are doing something good, working with the government.

How has the success of the mortgage fraud case in Sarasota impacted the office and similar future cases you'd like to pursue?

That's hard to say. We set up that mortgage task force with the idea that we would go after the smaller cases, then hopefully go after the real estate brokers and professionals in the system and then maybe some of the financial institutions. I think we were very successful on the first tier, the easier cases. I think we were moderately successful on the second tier and we had some successes, like Orion Bank, on the top tier. (The top tier) is where you just wish as a professional we could do more.

Tax fraud, including cases where identity thieves steal tax refunds, is an area where federal prosecutors nationwide have seen more activity. What's going on in that regard in the Middle District of Florida, which was one of the first districts in the country to pursue criminal action there?
It's massive. We are starting to prosecute a lot more of those cases. Probably not enough and we need to do more.

Now that you are more than two years into the top prosecutor job, what's the transition like to go from mostly prosecuting cases to mostly being an administrator?
I've been able to keep some cases, unfortunately not as many as I'd want. I picked up a business case recently because I really don't have the business background. It was a securities matter, and I'm keeping it because I want to see if I can learn something about it.

Administrating is not fun. Trying cases, prosecuting cases can be a lot of fun and can be very rewarding. Administrating just isn't. In tough budgetary times it's even harder because you can't do everything you'd like.


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