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U.S. attorney nominee Robert O'Neill clears major hurdle

Robert E. O'Neill cleared a major hurdle Thursday on his way to becoming the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved O'Neill's nomination to be the top federal law enforcement officer for the district, which covers 35 counties from south of Naples to Tampa to Jacksonville.

The nomination now goes to the full Senate, though there was no indication when a final vote could take place.

Nominated by President Barack Obama from a list of three finalists, O'Neill, 53, had been vetted by the staffs for both Democratic and Republican members of the judiciary committee.

Both of Florida's senators also signed off on his nomination.

O'Neill, who declined to comment while his nomination is pending, was among 16 judicial and Justice Department nominees the committee considered Thursday.

Senators did not discuss any of the two U.S. attorneys and six U.S. marshals nominees in detail before approving them.

As such, they did not take up any of the allegations made against O'Neill by former assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Del Fuoco.

Del Fuoco has sued O'Neill, claiming the nominee defamed him and released confidential information in his effort to get himself appointed U.S. attorney.

O'Neill has described Del Fuoco as "erratic" and "unstable" and out to ruin his reputation.

Immediately before acting on O'Neill's nomination, committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, asked the ranking Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, if he was going to hold over O'Neill's nomination. Sessions said no.

After polling the committee, Leahy said O'Neill's nomination would be reported to the Senate floor without objection.

After the committee acted on all eight Justice Department nominations, Sessions took a moment to discuss generally what the committee does when someone makes allegations about a nominee.

"We on the committee do take the marshals and U.S. attorneys seriously," Sessions said. "They're important nominations. We try to be supportive of the president's choice.

"Every now and then somebody makes an allegation against one of them," Sessions said. "We do investigate that and try to be sure that no serious meritorious complaint has been made. We've reviewed these nominees and feel like they're worthy of moving forward."

Leahy said the committee's leadership from both parties coordinates the review of any objections it receives.

"A lot of times somebody's nominated and somebody (else) comes up and says they were really involved in that bank robbery ... because they don't like the person," he said. "We check it out, and it's taken care of. We work very closely together on that."

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

Most of his career has been as a prosecutor, 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.

Since 1993, O'Neill has worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Middle District.

He currently is chief of the district's criminal division.

But he already is familiar with the U.S. Attorney's job.

In 2007 and 2008, he served as the district's interim U.S. attorney before President George W. Bush appointed Tampa lawyer A. Brian Albritton to the job. Albritton will remain in the position until O'Neill is confirmed.

In addition to his legal career, O'Neill is a co-owner of Four Green Fields, a popular Irish pub near downtown Tampa.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

U.S. attorney nominee Robert O'Neill clears major hurdle 09/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 24, 2010 12:06am]
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