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Top prosecutor joins law firm

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Assistant U.S. Attorney David McGee, the man who put F. Lee Bailey behind bars, is leaving the world of prosecutors to practice law in Pensacola.

For 20 years, McGee has been one of the best-known prosecutors in Florida. His work on major drug smuggling cases has long given the state's Northern District a reputation for aggressive prosecutions that put smugglers in prison for 50- and 60-year terms.

McGee and his wife, Joyce, a former division director for the State Department of Revenue, are moving to Pensacola where he will join the firm of Beggs and Lane.

With a 16-year old daughter and 12-year-old son, McGee said he decided it was time to get into private practice. He will be handling a civil trial practice.

Law enforcement officials, fellow prosecutors and friends praised McGee's dedication to the job at a dinner in his honor Thursday night.

The night included "mail" from Bailey, probably the best known defendant McGee took to court.

"I was pleased to learn of your retirement," U.S. Attorney P. Michael Patterson read from the mock Bailey letter as the crowd roared with laughter. "First, your wardrobe is very important _ no more suits off the rack and a rose tint to the glasses will overcome your prosecutor's image. And remember you're on an expense account: If a hotel room is not over $500, don't stay there."

McGee will get one more shot at Bailey on Monday when U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul hears arguments over $1.4-million in expense money that Bailey claims he is due from his work on behalf of a drug smuggler client. McGee says Bailey should pay an additional $412,000 because many of his expenditures were for his lavish lifestyle.

In courtroom appearances that brimmed with hostility, McGee accused Bailey of taking the money for the oldest of reasons: greed. The allegation made Bailey suggest that McGee better watch out for his own safety and that of his family.

McGee was also in the national spotlight last year when he prosecuted Paul Hill, who shot to death a doctor at a Pensacola abortion clinic.

Starting his career as an assistant state attorney in Tallahassee, McGee went after Floyd "Bubba" Capo, a former Cortez fisherman who moved to Dixie County and became a well-known smuggler.

When McGee became a federal prosecutor in 1980, he again targeted Capo and dozens of other Dixie and Taylor County smugglers. Working with agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, McGee led a team that sent more than 250 smugglers from the two rural counties to prison in the early to mid-1980s.

He also directed Operation Sunburn, an investigation that sent several dozen men to prison for smuggling more than 600,000 pounds of marijuana into the state in the early 1980s. The nickname came from Bill Cobb, a Florida Keys smuggler who used a suntan lotion business as a cover for his drug operation.

Law enforcement officers called McGee "a cop's prosecutor," the kind of guy who not only took their cases into courtrooms, but counseled them along the way. Federal drug agents often enticed drug smugglers into the counties of the Northern District for a meeting just to establish venue in a place where McGee could prosecute. Such was the case involving Bailey's client, French smuggler Claude Duboc, a man who imported all of his drugs in the San Francisco area, but got caught because an associate met a drug informant in Gainesville to discuss the plot. Duboc has pleaded guilty and forfeited more than $200-million in assets.

"This man is single-handedly responsible for the expansion of the federal prison system," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Simpson, who has worked with McGee for most of his career. "He's one of the best prosecutors this country has seen, any time, any where, any place."

Department of Justice officials said McGee has done more to seize assets than any other federal prosecutor in the nation. Similar praise came from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, the U.S. marshals, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Secret Service.

McGee's work earned him more than a few enemies, including former state Senate President Mallory Horne and Dexter Douglass, now general counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Douglass defended Horne in the mid-1980s on charges of money laundering and drug smuggling, a rare courtroom loss for McGee.

"I'm not sad at all," Douglass said of McGee's departure. "I hope the people in Pensacola can stand it."