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Robert O'Neill nominated for U.S. attorney

TAMPA — President Barack Obama nominated Robert O'Neill on Wednesday to serve as U.S. attorney for Florida's Middle District, meaning one of the nation's busiest regions could again have a local lawyer at the helm.

The selection of O'Neill, a veteran assistant U.S. attorney and co-owner of an Irish pub in Tampa, comes 11 months after he landed on a list of three finalists.

He survived a process slowed by attacks from adversaries of him and Harry Shorstein, a former state attorney from Jacksonville. Roger Handberg, chief of the U.S. attorney's Orlando office, also was in the running.

Several members of the bar gushed when they heard O'Neill was the president's pick.

"This is one of the best appointments I have ever seen in my legal career," said St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Patrick Doherty. "I honestly think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a real public servant, a lifetime public servant with high ideals, into a job that is very demanding and that he's very qualified to have."

But O'Neill, who said he could not comment on his nomination, may not want to celebrate just yet.

His application must undergo review by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

That could last six more months.

And his longtime nemesis, former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Del Fuoco, promised Wednesday to take his fight against O'Neill's nomination to Washington.

Del Fuoco is suing his former boss for defamation. The Tarpon Springs resident accuses O'Neill of violating federal laws by releasing confidential information in an effort to get himself appointed as U.S. attorney.

Del Fuoco refiled the suit this spring after a judge had thrown it out and scolded him for making scandalous accusations. O'Neill has described Del Fuoco as "erratic" and "unstable" and out to smear his reputation.

"I believe that Mr. O'Neill is unfit for the job," Del Fuoco said. "I believe that the Obama administration is going to regret making the appointment.

"This is not going to go down easy," he said.

Others, however, called the 52-year-old O'Neill an excellent choice for Central Florida's top federal prosecutor.

"Bobby is a career prosecutor who calls it as he sees it," Tampa defense lawyer Rochelle Reback said. "He doesn't let any sort of personal feelings or mob frenzy or politics get in the way of trying to do the right thing."

O'Neill, a native of the Bronx in New York, began as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

He has spent the bulk of his legal career prosecuting cases for the government, including stints as an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami and deputy chief in charge of litigation for the U.S. Department of Justice's Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs Section.

He co-owns Four Green Fields, a popular Irish pub near downtown Tampa.

If confirmed as U.S. attorney, O'Neill would oversee the state's largest district, which includes 35 counties and stretches over 350 miles from the Georgia border to south of Naples.

O'Neill already knows something about the job, having served from 2007 to 2008 as the district's interim U.S. attorney before President George W. Bush appointed Tampa lawyer A. Brian Albritton.

He holds the post until O'Neill is confirmed.

An assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District since 1993, O'Neill currently serves as chief of the district's criminal division.

In that role, he has earned respect from defense lawyers for his trial skills and his instincts about which cases his office should be prosecuting.

Lawyers speak of his willingness to hear them out when they feel their clients aren't getting a fair shake.

They may not get the answer they want, but they leave feeling their position was considered and countered with legitimate argument, they said.

"As someone who has taken advantage of that open door, I did not always get my way," Reback said. "But I always felt I got my say."

Doherty said he has opposed O'Neill in two "knock-down, drag-out trials," including the corruption case against former Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake. Each time, Doherty's clients were convicted.

"And in both instances, he was so fair, it was just remarkable," Doherty said. "I left thinking this is one of the best lawyers I've ever seen and definitely one of the best guys I've ever met."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Biography

Robert E. O'Neill

Age: 52

Education: Fordham University and New York Law School

Current job: Criminal division chief for Florida's Middle District

Hometown: Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y.

Robert O'Neill nominated for U.S. attorney 06/10/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 10, 2010 12:36am]

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