TALLAHASSEE — Veteran prosecutors expect to make enemies. It comes with the job.
So it should come as no surprise that two of the men who want to become the new U.S. attorney for Florida's Middle District are being attacked by old adversaries, an assault that has stymied selection efforts.
The accusations against one include an extramarital affair with a subordinate, helping a terrorist organization raise money and compromising important public corruption investigations.
The other is accused of conducting vindictive investigations and abusing his prosecutorial powers. The charges have been made in letters and court documents filed over the past six months.
The fight is an unusual public airing of a process that traditionally takes place behind closed doors. And it has significant ramifications for Florida's legal system. The Middle District, which includes the Tampa Bay area and Orlando, is the state's largest and one of the busiest in the nation.
U.S. attorneys are traditionally appointed by the president after a Judicial Nominating Commission interviews applicants and nominates three candidates. The process usually begins soon after a new president is elected.
Three nominees were selected for consideration in July 2009 but President Barack Obama has yet to nominate anyone, in large part because of all the finger-pointing.
The nominees are Harry Shorstein, a former state attorney from Jacksonville, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert E. O'Neill, of Tampa and Roger Bernard Handberg III, of Orlando. They were selected from a field of 11 applicants last year.
Shorstein, 69, an elected prosecutor in northeast Florida for almost 20 years, has broad support from many of the state's most prominent Democrats, including former Sen. Bob Graham and former Attorney General Janet Reno.
But Shorstein has become the target of former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney, who is now president of the University of North Florida. He says Shorstein lacks the personality, temperament and management skills to handle the job, and has little support among law enforcement.
Shorstein disputes those characterizations. Supporters say he is being targeted because of his aggressive investigations in Jacksonville, including grand jury probes of city projects.
O'Neill, 52, is a widely respected prosecutor who began his career with legendary New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau in 1982 and has spent most of his adult life prosecuting crimes in federal courtrooms in Tampa and Miami. He has support from law enforcement officials, many current and former prosecutors and prominent defense attorneys in the Tampa Bay area.
But he, too, is coming in for harsh criticism.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Del Fuoco, a Tarpon Springs resident who blames the loss of his job on O'Neill, has flooded the White House and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office with letters and e-mails attacking O'Neill.
Del Fuoco says the prosecutor had an extramarital relationship with an office employee and compromised some investigations. He questioned O'Neill's ownership interest in Four Green Fields, an Irish bar in Tampa that once raised money for Irish Republican Army political leader Gerry Adams. Del Fuoco also has filed a federal lawsuit accusing O'Neill of defamation in comments that were included in his application for the U.S. attorney's job.
Handberg, 39, is chief of the U.S. Attorney's Orlando division and previously worked as a senior assistant attorney general for Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth. He has substantially less experience and outside support than Shorstein and O'Neill.
O'Neill would not discuss Del Fuoco's accusations. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III said the Department of Justice has ordered O'Neill and others in the office to remain silent while the nomination is pending. Bentley would not speak on the record.
But some associates and friends say the extramarital relationship was with an employee of a contractor, and O'Neill neither hired nor directly supervised her.
O'Neill's ownership of the bar, a popular downtown hangout for Tampa's legal establishment, has long been public. When a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked about the fundraiser for Adams in 2005, O'Neill said he did not organize it or attend. Adams had been a guest at the White House on his way to Tampa.
Steve Cole, a spokesman for the prosecutors' office, said at the time he was "astonished'' that the newspaper would question O'Neill's stake in a pub that has been patronized by many reporters, including some from the Times.
State Beverage Department files indicate O'Neill obtained 36 percent of the business with $75,000 from his savings in 1998. The files also note the 2003 arrest of a server who was in the United States illegally.
She was accused of selling alcohol to a minor who was working undercover for the state. Beverage agents turned the woman over to Tampa police but it appears she was not booked at the county jail or formally charged in court.
The files also indicate that O'Neill's partner, Colin J. Breen, pleaded guilty to a felony bad check charge in 1990 but was not formally adjudicated guilty. He repaid the $1,284 check. At the time Breen was on probation for making a fraudulent deposit in Pinellas County.
Friends say O'Neill does not have a day-to-day role in operating the bar, leaving that duty to his partner.
State beverage laws prohibit state prosecutors and law enforcement officials from having an ownership interest in any establishment that has a liquor license, but federal prosecutors are not included in the ban.
O'Neill traces his paternal roots to Ireland, where his father was born in poverty in 1916. Comparing the circumstances to Frank McCourt's bestseller, Angela's Ashes, O'Neill said his family moved to Scotland to escape religious persecution and then came to America to settle in the Bronx where his father worked as a janitor. His mother was one of 18 children who came to America from Germany at the end of World War II.
"I could claim that I was disadvantaged and, as a result, had to overcome tremendous adversity,'' O'Neill wrote in a letter to the Judicial Nominating Commission that selected him. "Nothing could be further from the truth. While there was never much, there was always enough. Because of the tireless work of both my parents, we had what everyone else had in a blue collar, ethnic neighborhood in the north Bronx.''
O'Neill's supporters say Del Fuoco's constant barrage of lawsuits, complaints and letter-writing campaigns stem from his dismissal from the job. In his application for the U.S. attorney's job and in a federal lawsuit Del Fuoco filed against him last year, O'Neill described Del Fuoco as "erratic,'' "bizarre,'' and "unstable.''
"It is apparent that Mr. Del Fuoco is fixated on me,'' O'Neill wrote in his application. "Of course, I am not alone. He has filed innumerable complaints against a host of others, including most of the senior management within the United States Attorney's office. To my knowledge, none has been found to have merit.''
Del Fuoco said all of the comments about his mental health are attempts to discredit his complaints and cover up the failure of the federal prosecutors to pursue political corruption cases.
In 2006, Justice Department officials recommended his dismissal for conduct unbecoming a federal prosecutor and abusing his official position, conducting unauthorized investigations, disclosing confidential information and lying about information he leaked to a reporter, according to a letter recently sent to members of the Judicial Nominating Commission.
"It's a typical response to any whistle-blower,'' Del Fuoco said.
O'Neill says his experience with Del Fuoco has made him a better prosecutor and enhanced his ability to handle disputes within the office
In the end it will be up to Obama to decide between the three nominees after extensive background investigations.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.