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Tampa's Lee Bentley among U.S. attorneys asked to resign in Trump housecleaning

U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014.
U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014.
Published Mar. 12, 2017

TAMPA — U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III, chief federal prosecutor in the Middle District of Florida and a 2014 appointee of President Barack Obama, was asked to resign Friday by the Trump administration.

Bentley, 58, is one of 46 U.S. attorneys nationally who were abruptly asked to submit letters of resignation, all holdover appointments from the Obama era.

The Tampa Bay Times could not immediately confirm if Bentley has yet submitted his resignation as requested by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

It remains unclear if Trump might ultimately reject some of the resignations.

Many of the federal prosecutors nominated by Obama have already left their positions, but the nearly four dozen who stayed on in the first weeks of the Trump administration have been asked to leave "in order to ensure a uniform transition," said Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores.

"Until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. attorney's offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting and deterring the most violent offenders," she said in a statement.

Bentley is a Tampa resident who directs more than 115 government lawyers who prosecute federal criminal defendants and represent the United States in civil matters in a swath of Florida that stretches from Naples to the Georgia state line.

Bentley declined to comment when reached Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who along with Sen. Bill Nelson recommended Bentley to Obama in 2014, offered praise for the U,S, attorney. Nelson could not be reached to comment.

"Mr. Bentley served our state and nation well, as evidenced by all the positive things we've heard about his performance throughout his tenure," Rubio said in a statement. "U.S. attorneys are ... political appointments who serve at the pleasure of the president. President Trump earned the opportunity to nominate new U.S. attorneys, and I look forward to working with Senator Nelson to ensure these positions are promptly filled throughout Florida."

Bentley, while not overtly political, was a registered Republican when appointed. However, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections website currently lists him as having no party affiliation.

It isn't unusual for U.S. attorneys to resign when a new president takes office, by choice or by order. In 1993, for example, the Clinton administration asked for the resignation of appointees of President George H.W. Bush.

Such resignations are not automatic, and it isn't unusual for a U.S. attorney to stay on through a new administration.

By Friday evening, U.S. attorneys around the country — including New Jersey, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Montana — had publicly announced their resignations.

But one who refused to resign, outspoken Manhattan prosecutor Preet Bharara, was summarily fired by Trump, Bharara confirmed Saturday.

During a November meeting at Trump Tower, Bharara had been asked by then-President-elect Donald Trump to remain as U.S. attorney.

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Bharara has publicly decried public corruption after successfully prosecuting over a dozen state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike. Government watchdogs recently urged him to investigate whether Trump took payments from foreign governments, in violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, the New York Times reported.

"The way the Obama administration handled it was appropriate and respectful and classy," he said. "This saddens me because many of these people are great public servants and now they are being asked to leave."

Bentley's office avoided any whiff of scandal during his tenure.

"There's a real fire inside of Lee that not everybody sees," Robert O'Neill, former U.S. Attorney in Florida's middle district whose 2013 departure created the vacancy, told the Times when Bentley was appointed 27 months ago.

Bentley graduated first in his class both at the University of Georgia, where he excelled in accounting, and at the University of Virginia School of Law, becoming a lawyer 31 years ago.

He's a son of the South, a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., with enough of a drawl to inspire jokes that he and O'Neill couldn't understand each other and by default became friends.

U.S. attorneys are federal prosecutors who are nominated by the president and are responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the territories they oversee. Their priorities are expected to be in line with those of the attorney general.

Sessions took perhaps a veiled swipe at their work in a memo this past week, saying prosecutions for violent crime have been on the decline even as the number of murders has gone up. The demand for resignations seems a way to ensure he will have a team of new federal prosecutors more likely to share his agenda.

Montana's U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said he received a phone call from a Justice Department official telling him "the president has directed this."

"I think it's very unprofessional and I'm very disappointed," he said. "What happened today on Friday, March 10, that was so important that all Obama appointees who are U.S. attorneys need to be gone? "I gotta write that (resignation) letter. It's going to be a one-liner," he added.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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