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Nominating commission narrows U.S. attorney candidates to three

ORLANDO — Former interim U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill landed on a list of three finalists Wednesday to take over the Tampa job for good.

Or, for as long as such appointments ever last.

The new U.S. attorney would replace A. Brian Albritton, a President George W. Bush appointee who began Oct. 15 and did not reapply after the change of party in the White House.

Joining O'Neill as finalists were Roger Handberg, chief of the Orlando office, and Harry Shorstein, who served five terms as state attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

Those three men, and six others, submitted to half-hour interviews with a federal judicial nominating commission that met in Orlando Wednesday.

Next, it's up to U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., to nominate one of the three to President Barack Obama.

The U.S. attorney serves as top federal law enforcer for the Middle District of Florida, which includes 35 of the state's 67 counties, Hillsborough among them.

O'Neill, chief of the office's criminal division in Tampa, told the panel that he thinks well of the Obama administration and likes its direction.

"I think they've put the right people in the right places," O'Neill said.

Having the advantage over other applicants of serving temporarily as U.S. attorney, O'Neill talked in specifics about problems facing cities across the district.

He's met with Jacksonville's mayor and knows the city needs help with its violent crime problem. He knows Hillsborough's sheriff is focused on ridding the county of gang activity. And he knows mortgage fraud has hit Fort Myers hard.

He said he's worked to address those issues.

"The office has done really well, but not well enough for a district this size," O'Neill said, adding that he wants to see his prosecutors work harder and take more cases to trial.

Handberg, put in his Orlando chief's position when O'Neill was temporarily running the U.S. Attorney's Office, appeared to impress the panel with his application. One commissioner called him a "breath of fresh air."

Handberg wants the U.S. Attorney's Office to tackle more significant cases. He said he's increased the number of white collar cases his office handles and added more prosecutors to take on Orlando's growing violent crime problems.

Shorstein, a Jacksonville native, was state attorney in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties for five terms, after he was first appointed in 1991 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

One of the commission members called him an "innovator" in crime prevention programs. Shorstein served on state Supreme Court committees dealing with mental health, gender bias and the death penalty.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

Nominating commission narrows U.S. attorney candidates to three 07/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 11:51am]
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