Vague process keeps lawyers guessing

Prosecutor: Aspiring U.S. attorneys wonder who will get the job - and how.

December 15, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Now that Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio has officially announced his resignation, lawyers hoping to move into his job are jockeying for position.

But there is a problem for these candidates, and most everyone else involved: In Maryland, it's simply not clear how someone gets to be the top federal prosecutor.

In the end, of course, the White House makes the appointment. The Department of Justice helps. The Senate confirms. They know all that.

But who has the ear of President Bush?

In most states, it's the senior Republican senator. And if there's not one of those, a powerful Republican congressman might fill the slot. But if there's not one of those, who makes the call?

The governor? Maryland's two relatively low-ranking House Republicans? Insiders at the Justice Department?

"The process today is totally ambiguous and undefined in comparison to 30 years ago when I had the opportunity to be the United States attorney," said defense lawyer George Beall, who was the top prosecutor from 1970 to 1975.

Even the political players don't seem to know how much sway they have.

Three years ago, then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was thought to be DiBiagio's benefactor. But the governor's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney - himself a former Maryland U.S. attorney - said it was unclear what role Ehrlich would play this year.

Several qualified candidates have contacted his staff, asking for endorsements, he said, but "the bottom line is that the governor at this point does not know the process the White House expects to employ."

The Republican congressional delegation - Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest - has already made known its preferred pick: Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly.

"We think he'd make a great U.S. attorney," said Tony Caligiuri, Gilchrest's chief of staff.

But it is unclear how much weight that recommendation will carry.

Murmurs in the Baltimore legal community suggests that Rod J. Rosenstein - a former prosecutor in the Maryland U.S. attorney's office who is now the Justice Department's principal deputy assistant attorney general for criminal tax matters - also has a good chance of being appointed.

"He is an extremely bright, capable prosecutor and is very likable as well," said Martin Himeles Jr., a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

Geoffrey Garinther, another alumnus of the Maryland U.S. attorney's office and a partner at Venable LLP, also is mentioned as a strong contender.

Himeles said Garinther is highly respected by the local legal community.

"His appointment would go a long way toward enhancing the credibility of the office," Himeles said.

And then there is Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle, another prominent local Republican prosecutor. He challenged Bartlett in the GOP congressional primary in the 6th District this year - which meant it wasn't much of a surprise that Bartlett and Gilchrest offered their support elsewhere.

While Cassilly confirmed his interest in his position, Rosenstein, Garinther and Rolle declined to comment for this article. But many others in the legal community said their interest is well-known.

As perhaps it should be. With no clear person to target, it makes sense that contenders are talking to anybody and everybody.

"I went through it four years ago, and boy, it takes a lot of time, a lot of energy," said Charles Bernstein, a local lawyer who was vying for the position eventually awarded to DiBiagio. "You talk to everybody, you thank everybody. You try to figure out how the decision is going to be made."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said networking would not be the only determinant. The Bush administration will likely screen potential Maryland U.S. attorneys for party loyalty, he said.

"There are political dimensions to prosecution, so [administration officials] are not going to let just anyone take the job," he said. "If they're not registered Republicans, they might as well just fold it up. Their histories will be scrutinized for party regularity, party contributions."

The four regularly mentioned contenders are all registered Republicans. So there is likely to be plenty of pitching, schmoozing and general self-promotion until the decision is made, lawyers said.

"It's a great job, it's a wonderful job," Bernstein said. "You just have to be highly motivated - let's put it that way."

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