Union Tribune

January 18, 2001

'Test of wills' on next U.S. attorney

Infighting is said to be holding up selection

By JOE CANTLUPE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

and Marisa Taylor 
STAFF WRITER 

WASHINGTON -- GOP squabbling appears to be delaying the
selection of a U.S. attorney for San Diego, one of the nation's key law enforcement posts.

At least nine people have applied for the position since Gregory
Vega stepped down at the end of May. Although no one directly
involved in the political appointment process would talk openly
about the dispute, several sources agreed to discuss it without
being identified.

The sources said the controversy began when a Republican
screening committee in California settled on a single candidate --
San Diego's former acting U.S. Attorney Charles La Bella.

The committee, headed by Rancho Santa Fe venture capitalist
Gerald Parsky, also submitted several other names to the White
House, but recommended La Bella for the job.

Some sources said White House aides -- particularly those in the counsel's office -- intervened in the process because they
favored someone else: Jeffrey Taylor, counsel for the Senate
Judiciary Committee and a former San Diego prosecutor.

But a Bush administration official said the White House merely
wanted more names to consider. The official said the committee
was instructed to pass along the names of at least two additional candidates, and to refrain from recommending any of them.

While both GOP camps are downplaying what one observer
called a "test of wills," each side portrays the other as delaying
the selection.

Accusations of smear tactics also have surfaced, prompting
Taylor last week to deny that he started a whisper campaign
against La Bella.

"I have nothing but respect for Chuck," he said.

La Bella refused to comment on the process, as did Parsky, who
headed President Bush's California campaign. 

Although almost eight months have passed since the job opened, White House officials characterize the selection process as fairly typical.

"It's still early in the game," said Anne Womack, a White House
spokeswoman. Several interviews are still being evaluated, and
"President Bush has not yet made a selection," she said.

A former prosecutor for 17 years, La Bella attracted national
attention when he recommended that an independent counsel
be appointed to investigate possible Democratic Party campaign
finance abuses during the Clinton administration.

Then-Attorney General Janet Reno rebuffed La Bella's
recommendation, and President Clinton later appointed Vega to
the U.S. attorney post, passing over La Bella, who had been
expected to get the job.

Republicans cried retaliation, and it was assumed by some that
the incoming Bush administration would name La Bella to the
post. With California Republicans like Parsky steering the
process and Democrats like Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara
Boxer providing support, La Bella seemed a shoo-in.

La Bella has critics, however, who say he's not enough of a team player. And some White House aides apparently view Taylor as an alternative.

Taylor, 37, a Harvard law graduate, is a former assistant U.S.
attorney in San Diego and now heads the crime unit in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he works for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the senior Republican on the panel.

Taylor joined the San Diego office in 1995 under then-U.S.
Attorney Alan Bersin and specialized in narcotics cases
involving Mexican drug kingpins.

Taylor is a registered Republican, which supporters say gives
him an edge in a political appointment process. La Bella hasn't
declared a political affiliation.

But some question whether Taylor has enough experience to
lead an office that handles one of the nation's heaviest criminal
caseloads.

Despite the controversy, several sources said a selection will be
made soon. Neither La Bella nor Taylor is out of the running,
they said, although a third candidate could emerge as a
compromise.

One possibility is Carol Lam, a Superior Court judge who had
been a longtime federal prosecutor in San Diego.

Lam and La Bella were interviewed by the White House and
Justice Department early in the process. Later, other candidates
also secured interviews, including Taylor; Robert Brewer Jr., a
former Los Angeles federal prosecutor; Joseph Brannigan, a San
Diego federal prosecutor; and Yvonne Dutton, a Los Angeles
attorney.

Casey Gwinn, San Diego's city attorney, was once believed to be
a strong contender for the job. But Gwinn said last week that he
told the screening committee in September he was no longer
interested because he wanted to serve out his term as city
attorney, which ends in 2004.

Gwinn described the U.S. attorney selection process as
"secretive and mysterious."

"That's unfortunate because it leaves the public not
understanding how it works," he said. "It's also too bad that it
can't be an open, straightforward process."

Marisa Taylor: (619) 293-1020; marisa.taylor@uniontrib.com