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Working through the wait

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  • | 8:59 a.m. March 14, 2014
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Lee Bentley enjoys arguing. It's the trait that made him want to become a lawyer. “I'm a little bit of a contrarian,” he admits.

But he doesn't let his love of arguing get in the way of doing what's right.

The 55-year-old interim U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida is known for his careful deliberation of cases, even if it means dismissing them when it becomes clear that a person isn't guilty or hasn't defrauded the government. In some cases, “it wouldn't be fair to put the defendant through a criminal trial, even if we thought we had a chance at conviction,” Bentley says.

Bentley says he learned his pragmatic approach from working under Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. “He was always cognizant of the practical implications of the court's decisions,” Bentley says. “He was willing to bend when it was necessary for the good of the country.”

Bentley assumed the position of acting U.S. attorney in July when his predecessor, U.S. Attorney Robert “Bobby” O'Neill resigned to take a job as a consultant in the private sector. Bentley serves as the interim U.S. attorney until President Barack Obama appoints a successor for the job. Meanwhile, Bentley is working to prove he deserves the post.

Bentley joined the district as an assistant U.S. attorney in 2000. From 2007 through 2013, he served as either criminal chief or first assistant to the U.S. attorney, or both. He worked as first assistant under former U.S. attorneys Brian Albritton and O'Neill.

Albritton says it's tough to fully describe Bentley. On one hand, he was involved in all decisions during the nine-month mortgage fraud surge, during which the district prosecuted more than 100 defendants representing more than $400 million in fraudulent loans. “On the other hand, here's a guy who's capable of great insight and judgment,” Albritton says. Bentley at times brought things to the U.S. attorney's attention to prove that the defendant may be innocent, Albritton says. “That just shows tremendous critical judgment — good judgment.”

Albritton didn't know Bentley before he came to office, but says he had a sterling reputation, especially with tough special projects, which he handled well, he says.

Things have changed in the district over the last several years, Albritton adds. O'Neill and Bentley have had tougher jobs with budget constraints forcing the district to deal with fewer resources and less money.

Tight Resources
Heading up the second-largest district in the U.S. with a $23 million budget, Bentley agrees that his biggest challenge is lack of resources. More than 10 million people reside in the district that covers 35 counties in Florida, stretching from Naples to the Georgia border.

Bentley oversees 103 assistant U.S. attorneys, or federal prosecutors, commonly referred to as AUSAs, as well as 105 support staff employees. “It sounds like a lot, but when you spread those AUSAs among five offices — Fort Myers, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tampa and Ocala — those 103 AUSAs are not just prosecuting criminal cases, but they're also handling all of our appeals, handling asset forfeiture, and handling the largest civil docket in the country.” Despite being one of the largest districts, at least 15 other U.S. offices have more AUSAs.

The number of people working in the district is the lowest it's been in more than a decade, Bentley says. A couple years ago, the Department of Justice determined that the district was the “most under-resourced office in the country,” and allotted a number of new positions for the district.

But before most of those slots were filled, sequestration and other budget cuts caused the department to implement an eight-month hiring freeze, in addition to finding ways to shed employees without any forced layoffs, such as retirement incentives.

After the most recent budget agreement was signed early this year, Bentley received authority to hire more AUSAs. The plan is to hire at least a dozen, which would bring the district back to the level of about seven or eight months ago. “It's not going to bring us anywhere close in terms of where we'd like to be,” Bentley says.

Bentley experienced an even tighter resource challenge during the government shutdown, when the majority of his office was not working for two weeks.

To keep the district going, “We've asked people to roll up their sleeves and work harder,” Bentley adds. “The morale in the office has been surprisingly good even though we've had very few or no raises.” It's testament to the kind of people who want to work for the office rather than his leadership, Bentley says.

“People here believe in the mission of the office. As lawyers, they wanted to be able to stand up in court and say, 'I represent the United States of America,'” Bentley insists.

Bigger and Better
Resource constraints have made it even more important for the district to determine which cases are the most important. “It's important that we do the really big cases because nobody else does those,” Bentley says.

In Bentley's mind, more “routine” cases are child pornography cases, violent crime and firearm cases, while “big” cases are white collar, drug and public corruption cases.

The big cases are tough because they require lots of time, often including scanning millions of documents and performing computer forensics on dozens of computers. And there's always the chance that after all that work, the prosecution will decide there's not a criminal charge and the case is dismissed. “You have to dig a lot of dry wells before hitting oil,” Bentley says.

Bentley says the state attorneys are so inundated with smaller cases that they can't devote the resources to delve into bigger ones. One example Bentley cites is its case against Tampa-based WellCare, in which the U.S. attorney's office convicted four of the company's executives on charges of health care fraud and making false statements, recovering $80 million from the deferred prosecution agreement, and more than $137 million in a civil suit.

The WellCare case is one case of which Bentley is most proud, along with two other cases from 2012. One was a Fort Myers case where the district prosecuted former Orion Bank President Jerry Williams for bank fraud, and the other was a Jacksonville public corruption case in which the U.S. attorney prosecuted the chair of the Jacksonville Port Authority for taking bribes.

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Bentley says it seemed like he always wanted to be a lawyer. He was excited when he was allowed to stay up late to watch Perry Mason and loved reading about lawyers in books like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“I also love to argue. Early on my mother told me, 'You outta be a lawyer, because it's the only thing you can do where you can argue as much as you do now and get away with it.'”

So after graduating from the University of Georgia, Bentley went straight to law school at University of Virginia. After graduation, he clerked for a year at the U.S. Court of Appeals, before clerking a year at the Supreme Court. Prior to joining the U.S. attorney's office, he worked in the private sector at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C.

Bentley says he learned a lot from his predecessors at the office, much that he didn't realize until after they were gone. From O'Neill, Bentley says he learned “to be willing to make the final decision, but to try and build consensus for that decision, rather than appearing to do it arbitrarily.”

Bentley characterizes his style as more deliberative than O'Neill, whom he says has the best instincts of any lawyer he's known. “That usually gets us to the same place, it's just a different process.”

Reflecting on his career, the trial Bentley is most proud of was a few years ago, when he prosecuted a skinhead gang who murdered homeless people in Tampa as practice for a race war. “I really feel like these vicious thugs chose to victimize homeless men because they didn't feel like anyone would care; they wouldn't be missed. That wasn't the case,” Bentley says. “They almost got away with it. But it gave me a real sense of satisfaction to see those folks convicted.”

It's one of the reasons why Bentley loves his job. He says now that his wife and two kids are settled happily in South Tampa, he hopes they're here to stay. “I don't view this job as a stepping stone to something else. I'm not interested in political office. For me, this job is an end into itself. I really do feel like it's my dream job.”

Middle District of Florida

  • Recovered $366 million in criminal, civil, and forfeiture actions in 2013;
  • Indicts about 1,300 cases a year, typically ranking the office No. 2 in indictments in the country (excluding districts that border Mexico and have thousands of immigration cases on their docket);
  • Handles around 100 criminal trials a year, ranking the office No. 2 in number of criminal trials in the country.
  • Last year was No. 1 in Project Safe childhood cases, which includes child pornography and other crimes against children.
  • No. 3 in white-collar cases and violent crime cases, No. 4 in terrorism cases, and No. 7 in firearms cases nationally.
  • In fiscal year 2013 in medical malpractice cases, the plaintiffs typically recovered less than 2% of what was demanded, “saving taxpayers money and not paying out damages simply because they are requested,” Bentley says.

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