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Tampa Bay’s new top federal prosecutor aims for bigger cases

Before rising as the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, Roger Handberg made a career focused on white-collar and public corruption prosecutions.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Roger Handberg poses for a portrait in his Tampa office earlier this month. Five months into the job, Handberg aims to refocus on the cases he believes federal prosecutors are best equipped to handle.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Roger Handberg poses for a portrait in his Tampa office earlier this month. Five months into the job, Handberg aims to refocus on the cases he believes federal prosecutors are best equipped to handle. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 27|Updated May 29

TAMPA — Roger Handberg had been a federal prosecutor in Orlando for a little more than four years when he was handed one of the biggest cases of his career.

The defendant was Lou Pearlman, the business manager for superstar boy bands like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. An investigation had uncovered evidence that Pearlman for years had operated a Ponzi scheme netting a loss of more than $300 million.

It was a monumental case, one that could have easily gone to a more experienced prosecutor. But it fell to Handberg, who came to see it as a model for what federal prosecutors should do, and how they should do it.

“One of the things that I always appreciated about the office is that they trusted me to be able to take a case of that magnitude,” he said.

It’s a case that remains on his mind today as he now leads the office where he has spent the bulk of his legal career.

In late December, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Handberg as the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, a sprawling 35-county jurisdiction stretching from Jacksonville to Naples. It is the second-largest federal judicial district in the nation by population, encompassing the cities of Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa.

Though the initial appointment was good for 120 days, the local U.S. District court recently extended Handberg’s tenure. He’ll remain until there is a presidential appointment.

Five months into the top job, Handberg, who previously led the office’s Orlando division, aims to refocus on the cases he believes federal prosecutors are best equipped to handle. The priorities are some of his own specialties: white-collar crime, public corruption and civil rights.

He points to the Pearlman case, which was a model for a swift, if complex, investigation. Also, though, it is a model for the kind of case he’d like to see young prosecutors tackle, if they feel they are up to the task.

“I got all the help and support and guidance I needed,” he said, “but there was a trust, that there wasn’t some set number of years that I needed to be at the office before I could do something significant. And I take that with me.”

Handberg, 51, grew up near Orlando. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1991 from the University of North Carolina, and a law degree three years later from Harvard Law School. He spent the first years of his career with the firm of King and Spaulding in Atlanta, handling cases that included antitrust, insurance, breach of contract and fraud. He later served a three-year stint with the Florida Attorney General’s economic crimes division in Tallahassee.

In 2002, he returned to his hometown of Orlando as an assistant U.S. attorney. He handled a bit of everything, from drug and gun crimes to child exploitation cases and counter-terrorism. His passion, though, seemed to be in white-collar crimes and public corruption.

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The Pearlman case was an early highlight. Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In 2015, Handberg prosecuted the former police chief of Longwood, who was accused of hiring a former felon as a police officer in exchange for more than $30,000 in bribes. A jury convicted the chief at trial; he got four years in prison.

Most recently, Handberg has been at the forefront of the case of Joel Greenberg, the former Seminole County tax collector who pleaded guilty to sex trafficking, wire fraud and other charges.

Handberg eventually rose to lead the office’s Orlando division, supervising a team of about 40 lawyers. He was among the finalists to be the U.S. Attorney the last two times there was a vacancy.

In an interview last year with a judicial nominating commission, he said he wanted to get away from smaller cases, the kind that may best be left in state court. He noted that in the year before, 28 percent of the office’s white collar prosecutions were for thefts of less than $40,000.

“I think we can get bigger cases,” he said.

He says he’s already seeing some progress toward his priorities. White collar criminal prosecutions have increased by 40 percent from the same period last year, he said. Some of that is due to fraud related to COVID-19.

A recent news release from the office highlighted 28 defendants accused of stealing from federal programs intended to help people and businesses during the pandemic. Combined losses attributed to those defendants total more than $35 million in taxpayer money. Prosecutors have managed to recover most of it through forfeiture actions.

One highlight was the Orlando case of Don Cisternino, who is alleged to have obtained a $7.2 million loan through a federal program designed to help businesses survive the financial impact of the nationwide lockdowns. He sought the funds for a movie production company that did not exist. He used it, according to prosecutors, to buy a 12,579-square-foot luxury home.

At the same time, violent crimes remain a priority. In Tampa, he’s increased from six to 11 the number of attorneys assigned to handle violent crime cases. He also added an attorney to the national security section in Tampa. The office also remains focused on opioid-related drug cases, particularly those involving defendants who distribute fentanyl.

Though he still lives near Orlando, he calls himself a “road warrior,” and tries to visit each of the Middle District’s five regional offices as much as he can. That includes a couple days a week in Tampa.

He says he tries not to micromanage. He knows many of his prosecutors could make more money in the private sector. Theirs is a calling, and he hopes they feel empowered to do the kind of work with which he’s made his career.

Does he think he will he be U.S. Attorney for a long time? He won’t say.

“What I will say is that I am grateful for every day that I get to be the United States Attorney,” he said. “As someone who was born and raised in Central Florida, there is no greater honor.”

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