TAMPA — Not long ago, a U.S. District Court judge quizzed the region's top federal prosecutor about career plans, in a conversation that wound up here:
"Bobby, you're not getting any younger."
"Thanks a lot, judge."
The judge, Elizabeth Kovachevich, was among those nodding in the wings Thursday when U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill announced that he will step down this summer to open a Miami office for a private firm that helps clients keep their corporate noses clean.
O'Neill, 55, a veteran crusader against public corruption who oversees federal prosecutions in a 35-county swath of Florida, will join a risk management company led by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh.
His tenure in the Middle District dates to 1993 and includes the fall of Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White and Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake.
"A job like this one comes with an expiration tag," O'Neill said Thursday of his 2010 federal appointment to the No. 1 job. "Politically, things change, and you need to move on. Life is the same way. We all come with expiration tags."
He told his management team at 9:30 a.m. Thursday and, about a half-hour later, sent email notices to staff in five offices. Many reacted with disbelief.
Tampa defense lawyer John Fitzgibbons called the move "a tremendous loss to the office, and to Florida."
James R. Bucknam, CEO of Freeh Group International Solutions, has known O'Neill since the mid 1980s when both worked at the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The CEO was an intern; O'Neill a young prosecutor.
"Bobby first and foremost is a tremendous investigator," Bucknam said. "He's been a great public servant for a long time. He has a keen sense of ethics. So, in terms of the types of services we offer our clients, he has exactly what we're looking for, in addition to his premier leadership skills.
"More than anything, Bobby is really a decent person. He's a good guy. People like him, they can relate to him, and I have no doubt he will be very successful, just as he has been as U.S. Attorney."
O'Neill will work in Miami but keep a residence in the Tampa Bay area. He worked in Miami previously as a federal prosecutor. It was the first of several posts for the Justice Department. He has also worked in San Francisco and Washington, but his deepest roots, aside from his native Bronx, are in Tampa, where he is part-owner of an Irish pub called Four Green Fields.
His career history skews heavily on the government side of the courtroom, and he has a reputation as a scrappy corruption buster. He alluded to it when he applied for his job overseeing the Middle District of Florida, which stretches from the Georgia border to south of Naples.
"Public corruption should always be a priority," he told the nominating panel. "If it's there, we need to make sure those cases are being made."
He saw to it they were.
He personally prosecuted bribery charges against Commissioner White, now serving time in federal prison.
In 2001, he successfully prosecuted Audley Evans, accused of misappropriating $4.5 million in Tampa Housing Authority funds.
Three years later, he 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.
He was drawn to the new job with Freeh by the caliber and quality of the people involved, he said. Several are former senior level law enforcement officers. Freeh, in addition to leading the FBI, was a former U.S. District judge from New York.
"To me, it's always been important who you work with," O'Neill said. "That's one of the nice things about where I work now. People are motivated by doing what's right."
He recognized a unique opportunity. The work is not incongruous with what he now does, except that the new job will pay "significantly more" than his government salary of $155,000.
What might a risk management firm do, exactly?
Ferret out a company's embezzler. Deter illegal bribes that could endanger a global corporation's standing in a foreign country. Conduct a private but independent investigation.
One example: Penn State University trustees hired Freeh and his team for an exhaustive post-mortem of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
CEO Bucknam said O'Neill will do hands-on investigating while also leading the 25-person company's expansion into Florida and Latin America.
"We've seen a bit of growth in business opportunities in South America," Bucknam said. "We'd like to be closer to those clients."
O'Neill plans to remain at the U.S. Attorney's Office for a few months to ensure an orderly transition.
He said he is proud of what has been accomplished there.
In a letter announcing his resignation, he praised his staff, expressed gratitude to the nation's leaders and said he hoped he had lived up to expectations.
"In an era in which it has become fashionable to impugn the public employee, the individuals in this office work long hours, often without recompense, simply because they believe in the mission of the office," he wrote.
Judge Kovachevich wishes him well. She knows Freeh. She thinks this is a good move and a good fit for O'Neill.
"What a wonderful U.S. attorney he's been," she said, "and what a wonderful assistant U.S. attorney he's been. In all the years he's practiced in front of me in Tampa, I've been so impressed with his representation of the United States.
"I think he has the respect of all the judges in the district."
News researcher John Martin and staff writers Sue Carlton and Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.