U.S. attorney pick's style is low key, yet aggressive

Rosenstein called ethical, smart, able by colleagues

June 15, 2005|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

On Jan. 14, 1998, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat down for an interview in the White House's ornate Treaty Room with Rod J. Rosenstein and his boss, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Starr didn't say much. He largely left the questioning of the first lady about missing FBI files to the 33-year-old Rosenstein, who is likely to be the next U.S. attorney in Maryland.

The moment illustrates how quickly Rosenstein was able to pull up a seat at the table of one of the highest-profile corruption investigations in decades, a remarkable feat for a junior lawyer now on track to become Maryland's top federal prosecutor.

Friends, former colleagues, retired federal investigators and opposing counsel describe Rosenstein, now 40, as both a dedicated father of two young girls who likes to ride his bike to work and a skillful lawyer who successfully mines witnesses for critical information and connects well with juries.

"Rod is probably the best trial lawyer I've ever seen in a courtroom," said Maury S. Epner, a Rockville attorney who served with Rosenstein in the U.S. attorney's office in Greenbelt in the late 1990s.

The unknown factor, several defense attorneys in Maryland say privately, is what kind of priorities Rosenstein would set for the office of 70 prosecutors trying cases affecting every corner of the state.

Rosenstein would inherit an office still shaking off the stormy tenure of Thomas M. DiBiagio, who resigned in December, five months after he wrote a widely criticized memo pushing his prosecutors for three "front page" indictments.

Supporters say Rosenstein has proved himself as a low-key leader who, in his current high-level Justice Department position, helped energize tax prosecutions around the country after he honed his skills in federal courtrooms in Maryland for four years ending in 2001.

Raised in suburban Philadelphia and educated in the Ivy League, he quickly won the respect of shoe-leather investigators and courtroom-savvy attorneys. They remember Rosenstein as a buttoned-down rookie prosecutor who nevertheless jumped into cases enthusiastically, often distilling complicated issues into simple concepts for his juries.

"Often we were supposed to call the assistant on duty, but we would just sort of call Rod up," said retired FBI Special Agent George Leyton, who supervised the bureau's violent-crime squad in Maryland. "I would say he was aggressive, not ambitious. He was the one who wanted to take the hard cases."

Though known by many for his conservative leanings, associates say they cannot point to instances where his political bent affected a case. A review of federal and state campaign finance records shows that Rosenstein has not contributed to political parties or candidates.

At Harvard Law School he was a member of the Federalist Society, and he has since attended events at its Washington headquarters. The organization promotes limited government and judicial restraint, serving as a breeding ground for conservative legal thinkers, including some of the more controversial recent nominees to the federal bench.

"I'm a Republican and Rod is too. We've both been to Federalist Society events," said Michael J. Madigan, a partner at the Washington powerhouse law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who has also taught trial advocacy courses with Rosenstein at Georgetown University.

"But that doesn't mean anything," Madigan said. "Just because you go to the Federalist Society doesn't mean we all believe the same things."

Rosenstein declined to be interviewed for this article, citing his pending nomination before the U.S. Senate. A Justice Department spokeswoman also said her office would not be able to comment for similar reasons.

Smooth sailing

Unlike the recent controversy over nominees to the federal bench, Rosenstein's nomination by President Bush last month has had smooth sailing so far.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Democrats, met privately with Rosenstein and returned their "blue slips" to the Senate to indicate they will not try to block the nomination. The Judiciary Committee and then the full Senate must approve the nomination, though Rosenstein could come to the office on an interim basis before those votes.

"He's smart and ethical, and experienced and knowledgeable," said Roger M. Olsen, who headed the Justice Department's tax division in the Reagan administration. "I'm just glad that people like him want to continue to serve."

Born in Philadelphia, he graduated from high school in the wealthy suburb of Huntingdon Valley just north of the city. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, he worked on a campus literary magazine and joined the pre-law society.

In 1986, with a degree in economics, he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and left for Harvard.

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