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U.S. attorney will step down

Paul Perez will take a job with Fidelity National Financial. An interim has not been named.

By JUSTIN GEORGE and COLLEEN JENKINS
Published March 14, 2007


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TAMPA - Paul Perez, the top law enforcement officer in this part of Florida appointed by President Bush, announced Tuesday that he will resign as U.S. attorney.

With Bush's tenure nearing an end, Perez, 52, knew his job security was too. So the head prosecutor, whose office investigated terrorism and drug smuggling, decided to take an offer from a Fortune 500 company near his Jacksonville-area home, one that paid abundantly more than his $143,000 annual salary.

Perez's resignation effective March 30 comes as lawmakers are investigating the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year to see if their terminations were politically motivated.

Perez said that investigation has nothing to do with his decision. People who know him agree, saying he is above board ethically and lacks any sort of political bent that could entangle him in the controversy.

"Terrible timing," Perez said of his decision to accept the job of chief compliance officer for Fidelity National Financial Inc. Still, "the position was open now," he said, "and it was either take it or risk not having it be around."

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called Perez Tuesday to thank him for his service, minutes before heading into a news conference about the controversy in Washington.

Born in Cuba, Perez said he told Gonzales it had been an honor serving under the first Hispanic attorney general.

Perez said he was leaving a "dream job," but felt as though he had straightened out an embattled office in his five years.

Perez heads the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida, which stretches from Jacksonville to Naples, with headquarters in Tampa. He oversees more than 200 people, including about 100 attorneys. No interim was named.

Perez, his parents and five siblings fled Fidel Castro's regime for Jacksonville when he was 5. He played college soccer and thought he would coach at a small liberal arts university after he earned his Latin American studies master's degree from the University of Florida.

But there was a glut of doctorate graduates looking for college work, so he opted for law school at George Washington University. He graduated in 1984.

He clerked for a U.S. district judge, and was known around the Jacksonville courthouse as a golden boy, loved by judges and even the blind man who ran the snack shop, said Bill Jung, a Tampa attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney who clerked at the same time.

"He's a nice guy," Jung said, "and he finished first."

Perez practiced bankruptcy and securities litigation for four years before he joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1989, prosecuting money laundering cases. He left the office for a decade in 1992 and worked in private practice until 2002 when the Senate confirmed him as U.S. attorney.

He entered at a time when the stakes were high: The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were fresh, and the Tampa office had taken heat for filing charges against the Aisenbergs, a Valrico couple accused of inventing a kidnapping tale to explain their infant daughter's disappearance in 1999. The charges were dropped and a judge later awarded the couple $2.9-million in attorney's fees.

Things changed with Perez.

He led Operation Panama Express, which hobbled drug cartels, and was in charge of operations that exposed human smuggling rings. He indicted a movie star on tax fraud charges and won racketeering charges against people tied to the Gambino crime family.

He was also at the helm when a jury found former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants not guilty on many counts of a 53-count indictment alleging they aided terrorists, and couldn't reach a verdict on others. Al-Arian and a co-defendant eventually pleaded guilty to one count each, but the sum of the case was roundly counted as a major loss for the government.

"People may have their own thoughts and disagree on this, but I'm proud of the Al-Arian prosecution," he said. "I think it was important to expose Al-Arian for what he is in my mind, and that's a white-collar terrorist."

Tampa attorney Rochelle Reback praised Perez as a fair and ethical prosecutor, but said the defense bar had criticized his office for a lack of white-collar crime prosecutions.

Now, with the U.S. Attorney General's Office under investigation, she wonders if he was subject to Bush administration political pressure.

"We see now that the White House has tried to fire all the U.S. attorneys to politicize prosecutions around the country," Reback said. "I would hate to think that what we thought was laziness was really fear."

Others didn't see any way politics could affect Perez's office.

"It was not politicized under Paul Perez," said St. Petersburg attorney Pat Doherty. "He ran this organization just as ethically as it can be run."

Perez's chief assistant attorney, James Klindt, called Perez a by-the-book guy who considers the means just as important as the ends. He never cheats in golf, Klindt said. "He's never made a decision based on anything but doing the right thing," he said.

"He's one of those people you scratch your head: Is he a Republican?" Jung added. "He's non-political. I've never seen politics enter in the decision he's made."

A hands-on attorney who made himself available to trial lawyers during the Al-Arian case, Doherty said Perez was the opposite of some U.S. attorneys, who seemed past their prime and went to Orlando Magic games more regularly than court.

"This guy was really spectacular and so was his office," Doherty said. "He attracted good people. He kept great people."

Perez, married with three children, said he considered taking the Fidelity National Financial job in January, but waited until the federal budget passed, ensuring his office may fill some of the 28 posts eliminated over the last few years. He applied to become a federal judge once, and said he may some day return to public service.

Times staff writers Bill Adair, Jennifer Liberto and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Notable cases

Cases handled by U.S. Attorney Paul Perez's office

- Sami Al-Arian: A 53-count indictment in 2005 charged Al-Arian and three co-defendants with conspiring to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists. Acquitted on many counts, with no verdict in others, Al-Arian and a co-defendant eventually pleaded guilty to one count each of providing aid that did not involve violence.

- Wesley Snipes: Perez's office is prosecuting the actor on tax fraud charges.

- Operation Panama Express: A Colombian businessman accused of leading the Cali drug cartel, Joaquin Mario Valencia-Trujillo, was convicted of smuggling cocaine in Operation Panama Express, a Tampa-based drug investigation.

- LaBrake housing scandal: Former Tampa housing chief Steve LaBrake, his wife and another man were convicted of crimes relating to a bribery scandal in 2004.

- Lynn "L.D." Stewart: A Hooters founder's tax evasion case ended in a mistrial.

- Tampa mob trial: Four defendants convicted of racketeering in a case involving the Gambino crime family.

[Last modified March 14, 2007, 05:45:07]


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