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Humble beginnings, hard work define Obama's U.S. attorney pick for Florida

TAMPA — By day, they prosecuted drug dealers and murderers for Manhattan's district attorney. At night, they swapped stories over drinks at Forlini's, a popular lawyer bar, then rode home on the No. 6 train.

Cyrus Vance Jr. was the Yale and Georgetown-educated son of a secretary of state. Robert O'Neill's parents, a janitor and a maid, were immigrants who met on a service elevator.

The office mates cut their legal teeth together, then left to carve their own paths to prominence. Vance returned in January as Manhattan's elected district attorney. This month, President Barack Obama picked O'Neill, a Tampa-based assistant U.S. attorney, as his choice for the Middle District of Florida's top federal prosecutor.

Leading one of the nation's busiest federal districts would be a significant feat for a man born without political connections or personal wealth. The Guinness-drinking, football-loving son of a blue-collar neighborhood in the Bronx made his name with street smarts and hard work.

Along the way, he won ardent admirers and a handful of equally committed critics. He dipped into the world of civil trial law and tackled criminal cases in Miami, San Francisco and Washington, where jurors once compared him to an impish Michael J. Fox.

Friends know him as Bob or Bobby. They can still find him some nights at a bar frequented by lawyers, but now the bar is Four Green Fields in Tampa, and he's one of the owners.

O'Neill's rise took decades. But back in the Manhattan trial bureau, colleagues saw early hints of his future success.

"He was one of the shining stars in our class," Vance said last week, "and just someone that everyone liked and respected."

• • •

With his confirmation pending, O'Neill declined to be interviewed for this story.

The married father of two wrote about his formative years as part of his U.S. attorney application, crediting the tireless work of his parents for a "close to idyllic" childhood.

His mother came from war-ravaged Germany. His Irish Catholic father's family moved to Scotland to escape religious discrimination and eventually relocated to New York. Each had little formal education.

Their hardships and sacrifices were not lost on O'Neill, who wrote that he and his three brothers realized "how fortunate we were to have been born in the United States."

O'Neill, who turns 53 on Thursday, said he preferred the ballfield and street corner to the classroom as a kid. Yet he managed to secure admission to Regis High School, an academic institution reserved for young Roman Catholic men who demonstrated superior intellectual and leadership potential.

College at Fordham University, then New York Law School followed. They weren't the fanciest schools, but he received a solid education with the help of scholarships and part-time jobs, saving money by living at home.

Next, the boy from the Bronx headed to work in Manhattan, at the New York County District Attorney's Office.

The city in the mid 1980s was a wild west of violent crime: lots of homicides, gang activity and drugs. O'Neill landed in the thick of it, taking on the high volume of cases typical for young prosecutors.

"It was in that office," O'Neill wrote in his application, "that I learned the importance of being a prosecutor and that justice and fairness are not simply platitudes but goals to achieve."

After four years there, he accepted a job prosecuting federal crimes in the Miami office of Florida's Southern District, another 1980s hot spot for crime.

"This was sort of the last gasp of the cocaine cowboys," recalls Tampa lawyer Bill Jung. "Bodies were floating down the Miami River. Defense attorneys were counting out a million dollars in cash on their conference room tables. Cocaine was being imported willy-nilly through South Florida.

"For a prosecutor, it was just the greatest."

O'Neill, then Jung's boss, tempered the drama with his understated courtroom demeanor. He didn't shout, cry or wag fingers. He spoke plainly to jurors, laying out his cases matter-of-factly.

He put great stock in common sense and encouraged his staff to do the same.

Jung remembers being stumped by his first case. He was assigned to prosecute a woman charged with possession with intent to distribute after she returned from the Bahamas with three pounds of cocaine stuffed in her underwear.

How could he prove that she actually intended to distribute, not simply consume, the drug?

Always practical, O'Neill answered with a reference to Jung's admittedly large nose.

"You hold this up to your nose at your closing argument and say, 'It won't even go up my nose, so she must have intended to distribute,' " O'Neill said.

Another time, O'Neill heard Jung call jurors "folks."

You're not folksy, O'Neill told him. Don't put on airs.

"To him, that was just natural," Jung says now. "To me, you're trying to find your way and find your personality. The answer is you don't find your personality, you have it. That's why Bobby is so effective, because he is genuinely a nice guy."

• • •

O'Neill was aggressive, too, whether going head-to-head with doctors in medical malpractice cases during his two-year stint as a civil trial lawyer or against public officials, executives and actor Wesley Snipes in criminal court.

Sometimes his tactics left a bitter taste in people's mouths.

In 1993, the same year he started working in Tampa, O'Neill also served as lead prosecutor in the case of the United States vs. Deborah Gore Dean, brought by the now-defunct Office of the Independent Counsel.

Dean, a second cousin to Vice President Al Gore, faced corruption charges from her work as the top aide to the secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Reagan administration.

O'Neill accused her of lying on the witness stand.

"You can take her testimony and throw it in the garbage where it belongs," he told a Washington jury during his closing argument.

The judge told jurors to disregard the prosecutor's allegations about Dean's credibility. In a post-conviction hearing, the judge refused to grant a new trial but criticized the government's lack of candor about the truthfulness of some of its own witnesses. He also took prosecutors to task for being slow to supply the defense with exculpatory material.

He said the attorneys displayed "at least a zealousness" unworthy of federal prosecutors.

A bar complaint alleging prosecutorial misconduct by O'Neill was dismissed for insufficient evidence. But lawyer James P. Scanlan, an acquaintance of Dean's who sat through her trial, maintains that O'Neill's behavior 17 years ago makes him unsuitable to serve as U.S. attorney.

Scanlan said so in a letter he sent Wednesday to the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, encouraging senators to review the voluminous Dean-related materials he has assembled on his personal website.

He is among a small number of public critics determined to derail O'Neill's nomination. Joining him is Jeffrey Del Fuoco, a former federal prosecutor who blames the loss of his job on O'Neill and has sued him for defamation in federal court.

Del Fuoco's issues with his former boss have been well-aired, particularly after O'Neill was named one of three finalists for the U.S. attorney spot last summer. Allegations about O'Neill's professional and personal life helped drag out the nomination process.

O'Neill's supporters, many of whom are defense attorneys, are quick to attack the credibility of Del Fuoco, who refiled his lawsuit this spring after a judge threw it out and scolded him for making scandalous accusations.

O'Neill, now chief of the criminal division for the Middle District — which has offices in Tampa, Ocala, Orlando, Jacksonville and Fort Myers — has otherwise impressed people with his evenhanded and ethical treatment of cases.

It's an approach borne of his upbringing, friends say.

"He doesn't see things in black and white as some people do," said Chuck Hudson, a retired federal agent who now works for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. "He's sympathetic to circumstances."

Members of the defense bar express relief that Obama opted for a seasoned prosecutor over someone with more political influence. Other than serving a year as interim U.S. attorney, O'Neill, a registered independent, has never held public office.

In his interview for the permanent role, O'Neill said he wanted his prosecutors to work harder and take more cases to trial.

Defense lawyer John Lauro expects O'Neill, if confirmed, to energize the office.

"This will change the complete tone of the office," he said. "I think Bob will set a very high benchmark."

Staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.

Humble beginnings, hard work define Obama's U.S. attorney pick for Florida 06/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 19, 2010 9:22pm]
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