TAMPA — Two years ago, Robert O'Neill was on a short list to be the top federal law enforcer for the Middle District of Florida.
O'Neill, about to charge a former judge with bank fraud, dropped a hint to the panel interviewing him.
"Public corruption should always be a priority," he said. "If it's there, we need to make sure those cases are being made."
He got the job. And this week, Hillsborough County witnessed for the first time in years the arrest of a government official, Kevin White, on public corruption charges.
To those who know O'Neill, his personal appearance in a courtroom Wednesday was no surprise.
"He is, I think, just personally offended when public officials are being bribed or breaking the law," said Tampa defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons.
O'Neill, 53, grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Bronx, the son of immigrants, a janitor and a maid who met on a service elevator.
His first days as a young prosecutor were spent tackling violent crimes in 1980s New York City. His career took him to Miami during the era of cocaine cowboys, when bodies floated down the river.
Hillsborough County, that decade, saw its own share of excitement: county commissioners in handcuffs.
The U.S. attorney at the time was a legendary hard charger named Robert W. "Mad Dog" Merkle Jr., who garnered both intense criticism and staunch support as he crusaded against Tampa's power elite.
County Commissioners Jerry Bowmer, Joe Kotvas and Fred Anderson had taken bribes in exchange for zoning votes. Merkle's office won their convictions.
But he was often accused of tainting reputations without convincing evidence. He subpoenaed the governor to ask if he had taken bribes. He accused the mayor of being "on the take."
Going after public officials is sensitive business, said Bill Jung, who worked with O'Neill as a federal prosecutor.
"There is a discernment which is most important in public corruption cases," he said. "There's too much at stake."
In 1993, O'Neill served as lead prosecutor in a corruption case against Deborah Gore Dean, a second cousin to Vice President Al Gore.
O'Neill drew criticism when he accused her of lying on the witness stand — "You can take her testimony and throw it in the garbage where it belongs," he said.
He started prosecuting cases that year for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Florida's Middle District, which includes the Tampa Bay area.
In 2001, he successfully prosecuted Audley S. Evans, accused of misappropriating $4.5 million in Tampa Housing Authority funds.
His 2004 prosecution sent Steve and Lynne LaBrake to prison for conspiracy, wire fraud and accepting bribes, after news stories raised suspicions about the man who headed Tampa's housing department.
After the conviction, O'Neill said the verdicts sent a message that public officials should not abuse their positions for personal gain, noting, "This is a serious crime that undermines our system of government."
Over the years, prosecution priorities have evolved, said Todd Foster, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor and FBI agent.
Drugs were big in the 1980s. Priorities shifted heavily to fighting terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Fitzgibbons says that since O'Neill's appointment, defense lawyers have noticed an uptick in white collar prosecutions.
Federal investigators have been looking into state Sen. Jim Norman's financial relationship with Ralph Hughes, a now-deceased businessman who gave Norman's wife $500,000 to buy a lakefront home in Arkansas when Norman was a county commissioner.
Last month, O'Neill signed a subpoena for employment records of Norman's legislative aide.
This month, apart from his bribery indictment of White, O'Neill's office filed charges against Ronald Clifton, alleging bribery and false statements made as the mayor and a council member in South Daytona.
O'Neill declined an interview for this story.
His schedule, a spokesman said, was too full.
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.