Politics and Prosecutors

For Roberto Martinez the news was too good to be true. This past March a reporter from the Miami Herald called his office to inform him that Attorney General Janet Reno had declared he would stay on as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

The next day the Herald printed a story on the front page of its "Local" section announcing the decision, which came as shock to the many who assumed that Martinez, a loyal Republican appointed by President Bush, would be replaced by the new Democratic administration. The article included remarks from Sen. Bob Graham noting his concurrence with Reno. But Martinez, always cautious in dealing with the press, declined to comment.

Wisely, as it turned out, for something had gone amiss. Within a day, Graham's office issued a clarification. Graham and Reno, after conferring, decided the 40-year-old Cuban American would serve only as an interim U.S. Attorney. Meanwhile the senator would accept applications for the position from all comers.

In other words, the news was too good to be true. And not just for Martinez but for many of his underlings, who had hoped that his nomination would put an end to the reign of instability that began in 1988, when Leon Kellner resigned amid accusations he had impeded an investigation into the Iran-contra affair. Since then four different men, including the much maligned Dexter Lehtinen, have temporarily headed the Miami office, overseeing a staff that has doubled to more than 200 prosecutors as South Florida emerged as a hub of criminal activity.

Graham spokeswoman Mary Byrne insists the senator's decision to solicit applications is simply standard procedure. Tradition dictates that the senior-ranking senator of the party in control of the White House recommend appointees to the president. But that process, which has dragged on for more than three months, has left the nation's largest and busiest force of federal prosecutors in an unhappily familiar state of confusion.

"Is it distracting? Of course," says one prosecutor who, like most interviewed for this story, wished to remain anonymous. "Any time you're talking about replacing the top guy in an office like this, you're really talking about shaking up the whole office. Section chiefs don't know if they'll be replaced. Line prosecutors don't know if supervisors are going to stick around. Obviously it's frustrating. It's been five years since anyone around here has felt like they had real job stability."

That frustration is shared by those law enforcement agencies -- FBI, DEA, ATF -- that work hand in hand with federal prosecutors. "There's uncertainty amongst the attorneys themselves as to whether they're going to remain or hunt for new jobs," says one well-placed federal agent. "When you're in the business of conducting investigations and prosecutions that sometimes last a year or more, that's not an ideal situation."

This past Saturday Graham interviewed three finalists for the position: Martinez, state prosecutor Richard Gregorie, and Miami attorney Kendall Coffey. Graham is expected to recommend a nominee to President Bill Clinton soon, perhaps as early as this week. But that choice will likely not be made public for several more weeks, while the White House conducts a thorough background check. And even then the nominee will be subject to confirmation by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Martinez, a former federal prosecutor, has done much to reshape the office in his fourteen months, including establishing one of the nation's first civil rights units, and stressing environmental and public corruption prosecutions. Administratively, Martinez has tried to decentralize the sprawling office by assigning chiefs to head the Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach outposts.

"There's no question Bobby has done a Herculean job in steering the office," says a supervisor in the office. "But will that outweigh his political affiliation? Nobody knows." The real culprit, the supervisor insists, is Graham's waffling. "The senator knew all the way back in November that Clinton's election meant he had a choice to make. Was he going to keep Bobby or name an interim chief with a chance to be confirmed? He could have sent out clear messages. Instead what we've got is a muddle."

Local Democrats also believe Graham should have taken definitive action sooner A namely, making it clear that a Democrat would replace Martinez. In fact, the day Graham was quoted by the Herald as seconding Reno's support of Martinez, party officials flooded his office with calls of protest. "Look, for twelve long years the Republicans had their chance to appoint U.S. Attorneys," says one local Democratic leader, "and to my knowledge they never appointed a single Democrat. It's our turn. And to say that Bobby Martinez has stabilized an office he inherited from Dexter Lehtinen is a left-handed compliment. Al Capone could have come in there and stabilized things." One chief concern among Democrats is that Martinez, a young, articulate Cuban with an Ivy League education, could use the U.S. Attorney's post as a springboard to elective political office.

But if Martinez, who once served as counsel to the Dade Republican Party, is passed over for political reasons, he will have the sympathy of at least one of his fellow candidates. Back in 1988, Richard Gregorie occupied a similar position. A hard-driving career prosecutor who had headed the office's narcotics section during the cocaine-crazed Eighties, Gregorie served as acting U.S. Attorney upon Kellner's departure. Though revered among colleagues, Gregorie, a politically inactive Democrat, was passed over. Instead Ronald Reagan tapped Dexter Lehtinen, an ambitious Republican state senator whose tumultuous three-and-a-half-year tenure dragged office morale to an all-time low. Now Gregorie is hoping to get the nod from Graham and Bill Clinton, a former college classmate at Georgetown.

But some influential local Democrats are frankly hopeful that Coffey, counsel to the Dade Democratic Party for three years and an unsuccessful candidate in 1992 for a seat in the Florida legislature, will prevail. Coffey does have supporters within the U.S. Attorney's Office, but there is widespread concern that his lack of criminal and federal experience could prove disastrous in an office that prosecutes some 2000 cases annually. Coffey dismisses such fears. "In substance, the U.S. Attorney is the chief executive of a great and complex law firm," he observes. "There are probably 40 or more prosecutors in that office who can try complex drug cases. They don't need another lawyer whose background is drug cases. The issue is one of management and leadership."

The protracted selection process has made for some awkward interpersonal politics as well, in particular between Gregorie and Martinez, who are friends as well as former colleagues. "I wouldn't have applied without talking with Bobby myself," says Gregorie, who has long coveted the U.S. Attorney's job. "But a couple of weeks after the election, he called me up and invited me to lunch. He knew I was interested. And he knew that I knew the president, for what that's worth. He said, 'By all means, go ahead and apply.' He told me he was going to try to stay in, even though he's a Republican. He said, 'Well, Dick, if I don't get it, I sure hope you do.' And I feel the exact same way.


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