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Scores say so long to U.S. Attorney Bobby O'Neill (and his mullet)

TAMPA — U.S. Attorney Robert "Bobby" O'Neill got a send-off Thursday. So did his polka dot socks, blue shoes and the hair everyone likes to notice.

The retirement celebration began with words from Lee Bentley, who takes over as interim U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida on July 15, resigned to being called "what's his name" in the afterglow of O'Neill.

It ended with final encouragement from the boss.

"We toil anonymously for the greater part of our careers," O'Neill told colleagues, "but we know what we're doing is right."

The crowd, which filled 255 seats and spilled into a hallway, included top brass from more than two dozen agencies with offices in the Tampa Bay area, many with ties to the Justice Department.

Remarks swung from reverent to irreverent, as longtime acquaintances offered honors and jabs.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said O'Neill was among a handful of true friends, one she calls even now for advice, and — you know this is coming — he's the only man she knows who looks good in a mullet.

It may have been the 1,000th hair joke uttered during O'Neill's quarter-century Justice Department career.

But, in two weeks, his locks will have left this public life for the private sector as he trades the 35-county Middle District of Florida for a risk management company led by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn picked up where Bondi left off.

"I don't know about looking good in a mullet," Buckhorn said.

"If any of you haven't looked down, he is wearing blue shoes. Bobby, you are an embarrassment to the Irish people."

Buckhorn also delivered the graft-buster's best graft Thursday. He presented O'Neill with a glass-paned portion of an office door salvaged from the old federal courthouse on Florida Avenue. The ornate lettering on the glass said "U.S. Attorney."

Among other gifts: a Three Stooges photo framed below a photo of O'Neill with First Assistant U.S. Attorney Bentley and Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Toro-Font.

A golden bow tie award from the civil division. A bronzed eagle from the crime fighters.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote, thanking O'Neill for his service and singling out recent efforts on tax fraud.

Others gave images of George Washington at Mt. Vernon, hero Dick Winters at Normandy, the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would approve of O'Neill's efforts, said Tom Battles, a Justice Department regional director.

Two New York Yankees jerseys. A photo of Fenway Park, as a jab. Flags that had flown over the Florida Capitol and the Pentagon.

Everyone quipped about the forced federal budget cuts' effect on gift giving. Kevin Eaton, acting special agent in charge for the FBI, joked about raiding the evidence room. He brought a G-Man statue.

The federal Public Defender's Office gave the chief prosecutor a doormat and it said this: "Come Back with a Warrant."

There were gifts of words, too.

"I love you so much," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee told O'Neill. "You're such a good friend."

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor called him "the simplest complex person I've ever met." She was one of many who praised his down-to-earth demeanor.

"He makes everyone feel like they're the only one in the room," said Teresa Gulotta-Powers of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich praised O'Neill's judgment and gave him a hug.

By the time O'Neill's turn came to speak, he had been lauded as a prosecutor's prosecutor, one who rolled up his sleeves and stapled tags on his own exhibits.

He opened by suggesting they had laid it on too thick.

He borrowed a courtroom quote from movie character Cousin Vinny, who once said something near this: "Everything everyone just said is ..." He didn't abbreviate the profanity.

He turned the praise to others.

He pointed to the meshing of resources that safeguarded the Republican National Convention last year in Tampa, and he also praised the actions of law enforcement officers who routinely repel anarchy in less visible ways.

"What we do is more important than most of what anybody else does," he said.

He emphasized the importance of knowing when to wield justice. "Some people," he said, "need to be buried under the courthouse, taken away from society and kept there forever."

Others make mistakes.

"With the sentencing guidelines we're putting people away for a long time and some of them deserve that. We have to make sure they deserve that."

He will miss being an assistant U.S. Attorney. He won't miss the bureaucracy of being the boss.

The tributes and laughs went on for more than two hours.

O'Neill's wife, Joy, got one of the last ones, before the party moved to Four Green Fields, a pub in Tampa he co-owns.

Putting an end to years of speculation, she said this:

"I would just like to say that I think the mullet is just so awesome looking."

Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

What happens next?

Here's how the search to replace U.S. Attorney Robert "Bobby" O'Neill is expected to unfold.

• If a U.S. attorney leaves office, the Justice Department may appoint an interim for 120 days. In this case that's Lee Bentley, who has been O'Neill's top assistant.

• A federal Judicial Nominating Commission advertises the permanent position and chooses applicants to interview. That process is about to begin. The application deadline will be July 31.

• The interviews take place in public. That's scheduled to occur in Orlando on Aug. 15.

• In a closed session, the commission settles on at least three finalists.

• Florida's two U.S. senators interview the finalists.

• Barring objection by the senators, the names go to the White House.

• The president chooses a nominee.

• The Senate Judiciary Committee considers the nominee.

• If the committee approves, the nomination goes to the Senate floor.

Scores say so long to U.S. Attorney Bobby O'Neill (and his mullet) 06/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 28, 2013 9:24am]

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