Robert E. O'Neill set the right priorities in his three years as the top federal prosecutor for the Middle District of Florida. His focus on public corruption and tax and health care fraud well served the population of the nation's second-largest judicial district. As the president looks to appoint a successor, the White House should seek a candidate who similarly understands the criminal and consumer issues facing Floridians and who appreciates the office's obligation to be active, fair and transparent.
O'Neill announced this month he will step down this summer to join a private risk management firm led by former FBI director Louis Freeh. His departure after 20 years in Central Florida and three years as the top prosecutor will mark a loss in institutional history for the entire 35-county jurisdiction, which extends from Jacksonville to Naples. Federal prosecutors have a reputation for ham-handedness — a byproduct of the secrecy surrounding federal court — but O'Neill worked well with local law enforcement. His successor should recognize that treating local authorities the same way helps both sides.
O'Neill personally prosecuted public corruption cases over the years, raising the profile of his office's anticorruption practice. These are typically complex and time-consuming prosecutions. But O'Neill's investigations into housing fraud and bribery have cleaned up local government and strengthened public confidence in the political process. The next U.S. attorney needs to devote the same attention and resources to these types of cases. Similarly, O'Neill's successor should stay on top of health care and tax fraud, which have taken off in the Tampa Bay area, in part due to the region's high number of elderly people.
The next U.S. attorney also needs to follow O'Neill's example in answering for his office. The public deserves to know what federal prosecutors are doing and why they make certain cases a priority. O'Neill explained his thinking publicly, and he was not afraid of feedback. That sense of openness is vital for holding the office to account. And it keeps the U.S. attorney plugged into the community he or she serves.