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Wanted: prosecutor, must be self-starter

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


Until federal prosecutors dropped their case against Steve and Marlene Aisenberg, it was hard to know that Tampa Bay had a U.S. Attorney's Office.

This kind of invisibility is miraculous. Like a rhino hiding in the bathroom hamper.

In cities across the country, the U.S. attorney, and his or her numerous assistants, are the local presence of the U.S. Justice Department.

It's a big job and a political job.

So Donna Bucella, the U.S. attorney who announced her resignation last week, had no choice. She was from the Clinton administration. With another Bush in the White House, she is to be replaced.

A Tampa lawyer, Jack Rudy, is the likely man. He has a heck of a reference, the president's brother.

Jeb Bush liked Rudy so much that when Harry Lee Coe shot himself, Bush named him acting Hillsborough state attorney.

On the presumption that Rudy is a shoo-in, I'm going to ask something of him.

If you get the job, sir, do something.

There must not be any organized crime in Tampa Bay. The last time anybody was prosecuted for it was in the mid '80s, when the late mob boss, Santo Trafficante Jr., was hauled in -- and was acquitted.

There must be virtually no public corruption in Tampa Bay. The former executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority, Audley Evans, was recently convicted of bribery and conspiracy -- the first case of its kind since about a decade ago when a state prosecutor and a private lawyer were caught up in a case-fixing scheme. Tampa Bay must be lacking a single drug lord to nab. The last one picked up was St. Petersburg's Romeo Mathis, arrested in 1991 and sent to federal prison for the rest of his life in 1994.

As for white-collar crime, Mr. Rudy, could you please produce a case on your own? Columbia HCA, the hospital giant that got caught bilking Medicaid, pleaded guilty in January -- on a case that began with a whistleblower's suit. Not with some crusading prosecutor.

That's what we need.

A prosecutor who wants to make a difference.

Not somebody who wants to make a name.

That's what Tampa Bay had in Bob Merkle in the 1980s. He did not come by his nickname, Mad Dog, accidentally.

Merkle's personality was so rough that the Republican appointee who followed him, the late Robert Genzman, and even the Democrat after that, Charles Wilson, spent much of their time not rocking the boat. That way, nobody would get mad at them.

(In between there was Larry Colleton, who was as charming as Merkle. Colleton left after he grabbed a reporter by the tie when he didn't like the question the reporter asked.)

After Wilson, Bucella came through the revolving door. Now she's out.

I've been watching that federal courthouse almost 20 years. Much of the time I've spent thinking that God only knows what the people in it have missed that's right under their noses.

It isn't just the U.S. attorney's fault. The quality of the prosecutions also depends on the work of local FBI, DEA and Customs agents who do the investigating. But a U.S. attorney doesn't have to wait for cases to walk in the door. He can start them himself. He can ask questions. He can make people who need to squirm squirm. Even when they holler. And in Tampa, they sure know how to holler.

Being U.S. attorney is sometimes thought of as a politician's job. Look where it took Rudy Giuliani in New York.

But this is Tampa Bay. The job of U.S. attorney here was turned into a joke because people more interested in which way the wind was blowing were in charge.

We need no politician behind that desk. We need somebody with backbone, somebody who can withstand the wind.

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