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Behind-the-scenes fight affects U.S. Attorney nomination

TALLAHASSEE — A bitter and personal war of words is dominating the search for a new U.S. Attorney for Florida's Middle District, which stretches across 34 counties, including the Tampa Bay area.

At the center of the battle is veteran Jacksonville prosecutor Harry Shorstein, one of three nominees submitted to President Barack Obama for Central Florida's top federal prosecutor job.

The battle began with a letter sent by former Jacksonville mayor John Delaney, a prominent Republican who is now president of the University of North Florida. The letter accused Shorstein of misconduct that includes vindictive investigations and mismanaged prosecutions. Delaney contends that Shorstein is opposed by the entire law enforcement community in Northeast Florida.

The ongoing feud appears to have delayed action by the White House on the nominations, which were forwarded in July. In fact, a Judicial Nominating Commission submitted lists of candidates at the same time for federal judges, prosecutors and U.S. marshals, but the White House has yet to act.

Both Delaney and Shorstein are widely respected in Jacksonville and have developed statewide reputations for public service.

Delaney, 53, served this year as interim chancellor of the state university system but has deferred further political ambitions to raise a family. He was among those the governor considered this summer for an appointment to the U.S. Senate.

Shorstein, 65, a Democrat from a politically connected family, was state attorney in Jacksonville from 1991 until January, winning re-election four times in a Republican stronghold. He has frequently been appointed by governors from both parties to handle investigations elsewhere in Florida.

Several friends of both men say the animosity between them began in 1991 when Gov. Lawton Chiles selected Shorstein over Delaney to fill a vacancy for state attorney in Jacksonville. Bad feelings continued as Delaney became general counsel and later mayor of Jacksonville, and Shorstein conducted several grand jury investigations of city projects.

Delaney says he doesn't think Shorstein is a bad person but does feel strongly that he lacks the personality, temperament and management skill to handle the job. Although their relationship has been rocky at times, they jointly supported a major tax increase for city improvements in 2000 and other projects. Delaney endorsed Shorstein's re-election in 1996 against a Republican opponent.

Shorstein says Delaney's letter, sent to the Judicial Nominating Commission, contained "shockingly false statements,'' including the suggestion that he is opposed by law enforcement. He has been endorsed by several sheriffs and the Police Benevolent Association, the state's largest police union.

He is opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the sheriff's department in Jacksonville. Shorstein said Duval Sheriff John Rutherford isn't happy with him because he has criticized police shootings and says the department has under-reported violent crime. Rutherford said he vehemently opposes Shorstein's appointment because he believes too many felony cases were dropped and crimes were not aggressively prosecuted under Shorstein's watch.

Shorstein's nomination has drawn support from notable Floridians, including former American Bar Association President Talbot "Sandy'' D'Alemberte, former Supreme Court Justices Major Harding and Charlie Wells, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and others, including some Republicans.

Reg Brown, a Washington lawyer and Jacksonville native who worked for Gov. Jeb Bush, calls Shorstein "a fearless and courageous advocate for fairness and human rights.''

"A small group of insiders have apparently been maneuvering against Mr. Shorstein to settle old political scores,'' Brown said. "Frankly, as an unapologetic conservative Republican, I'm thrilled that the White House is considering such a balanced and experienced nominee. ''

Delaney's letter denouncing Shorstein's candidacy came to the nominating commission on the day Shorstein was interviewed in July. Commission Chairman John M. Fitzgibbons, a Tampa lawyer, said it was among more than 500 letters received in support or opposition to various applicants for federal judgeships, U.S. Marshal and U.S. Attorney positions that are routinely filled after a new president is elected.

Despite the letter, the nominating commission selected Shorstein and two others — Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill of Tampa and Roger Handberg of Orlando — to be considered by the White House.

Several of those who have endorsed Shorstein say he won approval from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and then-U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez as well as the White House, but the appointment bogged down when Martinez left office in September and Gov. Charlie Crist appointed George LeMieux to the Senate.

Several of Shorstein's supporters say they have heard LeMieux will try to block the appointment as a favor to Delaney. Crist says he has not been involved in the controversy.

LeMieux said he is receiving information about all of the federal appointments and has not threatened to block Shorstein's nomination. He said he has talked with Delaney and received a copy of the letter Delaney sent.

"... I appreciate anyone coming forward and providing information for candidates or if they want to make points to the contrary, that's important, too,'' LeMieux said.

Nelson didn't want to discuss the controversy over the nomination.

Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, a former Democratic candidate for governor and husband of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who is now running for governor, was on the nominating commission. Although McBride won't talk about the secret deliberations, he recently tried to settle the dispute between Delaney and Shorstein.

McBride said he ran into Delaney in Palm Beach last month and asked if there was a way to bury the hatchet.

"I like both of them and thought they should rise above whatever principle they are fighting over,'' McBride recalled. "John said there may be a side to Harry I don't know about, but that would be hard for me to believe because I've known Harry for 46 years.''

McBride and Shorstein served together in the U.S. Marines and attended law school together at the University of Florida.

After learning that the St. Petersburg Times planned to publish a story about the dispute, Shorstein and Delaney said they plan to meet today to discuss the situation.

Delaney said Shorstein has "a great family, a lot of good friends and is a good lawyer and a good public speaker but should not be U.S. Attorney. Perhaps instead the president should appoint him ambassador to England."

Among Delaney's criticisms of Shorstein is his conduct as state attorney in Jacksonville. He says Shorstein repeatedly targeted the city with grand jury investigations. And he said Shorstein openly castigated Rick Mullaney, a former prosecutor who supported Delaney's appointment for state attorney in 1991.

D'Alemberte, a Shorstein supporter, said he believes there are many problems in Jacksonville that should be investigated, like the rising number of police shootings.

"Shorstein is probably the only one who might be willing to look into it,'' D'Alemberte said. "Some people in Jacksonville may be genuinely worried about Harry because of the power he would have to investigate, but that is the very reason I want him in the job.''

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

Behind-the-scenes fight affects U.S. Attorney nomination 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 8:36pm]
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