Rod J. Rosenstein, a Justice Department official untethered to the state's political power structure, has emerged as the leading contender to become the next U.S. attorney in Maryland, sources confirmed this week.
Rosenstein, 40, serves as principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's tax division.
Known by some for his conservative ideological bent, including past membership in the Federalist Society, Rosenstein might have achieved his highest profile to date as a prosecutor for Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Attorneys who have worked with him described Rosenstein as a smart, dedicated and evenhanded lawyer armed with a level of prosecutorial and managerial experience that belies his relative youth.
"He's an extremely bright guy, very capable," Martin S. Himeles Jr., a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said yesterday. "I had an appellate argument with him, and he was on the other side. He was as good an oral advocate as I've ever faced."
Reached at his Washington office yesterday, Rosenstein declined to comment.
If successful, Rosenstein's appointment could turn the page on a rocky chapter for the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland, a period characterized by a mixed record on prosecuting public corruption.
Leading candidates for the job were interviewed in January. At least two of them - Geoffrey R. Garinther, partner at Venable LLP in Baltimore, and Harford County State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly - said they received calls late last week from Justice officials telling them that they were no longer under consideration.
A third candidate, Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle, has been out of the country on vacation since the middle of last week. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Sources familiar with the selection process said that Rosenstein is the only remaining candidate, awaiting a final background check. Officials at the White House and the Justice Department declined to comment
The nomination by President Bush could come as soon as this week, according to a source on Capitol Hill. But others said the selection could take up to six weeks to announce. The Senate must confirm the appointment.
Rosenstein had been considered the odds-on favorite since the abrupt, but not wholly unexpected, resignation of U.S. Attorney Thomas J. DiBiagio in December.
When DiBiagio took office three years ago, then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was his champion.
But a series of high-profile corruption investigations and indictments reportedly put distance between the two.
DiBiagio's office successfully prosecuted investment banker Nathan A. Chapman Jr. and former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who was Ehrlich's state police chief when he was indicted.
But DiBiagio's successor, interim U.S. Attorney Allen F. Loucks, forced the dismissal of DiBiagio's indictment against the former director of the governor's crime office. Last week, Loucks announced the end of the federal investigation of the Baltimore City Council's financial practices.
The publication by The Sun of internal e-mails last summer in which DiBiagio called for three "front-page" corruption indictments before Election Day also prompted Justice officials to issue a rare rebuke to the prosecutor.
Reached last night, the governor's legal counsel, Jervis S. Finney - a former Maryland U.S. attorney - declined to comment on the pending appointment.
Earlier in the process, Maryland's two Republican congressmen, Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest, had rallied around Cassilly. Garinther, formerly of the Maryland U.S. attorney's office, received strong support in the local legal community.
In addition, Rolle, another prominent local Republican prosecutor, had thrown his hat into the ring.
Rosenstein might have had an edge from the beginning as a Justice Department insider with experience in the office he could be named to lead.
In 1986, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School with a degree in economics, achieving both summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He immediately went on to Harvard Law School, where he served as an editor of the law review and received his degree with honors.
One of his former professors, Philip B. Heymann, who served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, remembered Rosenstein as "a very fresh, open, honest and clear-thinking guy."
Upon graduation, his star rose quickly. A clerkship for Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was followed by entry into the Justice Department's honors program.
Soon, with Heymann looking for new staff members, Rosenstein was plucked from hundreds of attorneys to serve in the deputy's office.
"He's always been Republican and moderately conservative, and I'm Democrat and moderately liberal, but this has never caused any problems in our relationship," Heymann said in a telephone interview yesterday.