Debate brews over list for U.S. attorney

The selection of Atlanta’s new chief federal prosecutor has become an intrigue-filled affair, pitting a career government lawyer against competitors with strong credentials and, perhaps as important, solid political connections.

Appointing the U.S. attorney for northern Georgia and other judicial districts poses a test for President Barack Obama. The Bush administration came under fire in 2006 and 2007 for what appeared to be the politically motivated firings of several U.S. attorneys, amid accusations that administration officials were trying to turn the prosecutors into partisan agents.

Now that Obama has begun making his nominations for those jobs, he is choosing a mix of experienced federal prosecutors and patronage appointees — or, in some cases, both.

A short list for the Atlanta-based job, submitted to the White House by Georgia’s Democratic congressmen, apparently contains four names, according to a dozen people knowledgeable about the selection process. None would speak for attribution, citing the administration’s insistence on keeping the process confidential.

The potential nominees include Sally Yates, a long-time assistant U.S. attorney, perhaps best known for prosecuting former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell in a public corruption case. Yates has been the interim U.S. attorney since late last month, when her predecessor, David Nahmias, resigned to take a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court.

Over the summer, Yates apparently was on the short list, then off, then on again.

Others on the list, according to several people familiar with the search for candidates, include Jeffrey Berhold of Atlanta and Christopher Twyman of Rome. Berhold is a solo practitioner and a former antitrust lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department. Twyman is a partner in the Cox Byington law firm, which has offices across northwest Georgia.

Efforts to learn the identity of the fourth finalist were unsuccessful. Berhold, Twyman and Yates all declined to comment.

People familiar with the search cautioned that Obama is not bound by the recommendations and could choose someone not on the list. The White House has not indicated when the president will submit the nomination to the Senate, which must confirm the appointment.

The U.S. attorney in Atlanta oversees 85 federal prosecutors who represent the government in criminal and civil cases.

The search process has hit some snags, mostly involving Yates’ candidacy.

Shortly after Obama took office in January, the White House asked Georgia’s six Democratic congressmen to assemble recommendations for 10 appointments: four U.S. District Court judgeships and the U.S. attorney and marshal for each of the state’s three judicial districts. Those recommendations typically would come from the state’s U.S. senators. But for the first time since Reconstruction, Georgia has two Republican senators at the same time a Democrat occupies the White House.

The Democratic congressmen appointed an advisory panel of 11 lawyers and elected officials to accept applications for the 10 jobs. That panel conducted background checks and interviewed applicants. In April, it submitted 10 names for each position, highlighting three as its top choices for each job.

For U.S. attorney, according to several people familiar with the list, those three were Yates, Berhold and Twyman.

When the Georgia congressmen met in May to consider the applicants, no one specifically objected to Yates, one person familiar with the discussions said. But the congressmen ultimately dropped her from the short list and replaced her with another applicant not recommended by the advisory panel.

The congressmen sent their recommendations to the White House just before the Memorial Day recess.

Word of Yates’ exclusion spread over the summer, prompting speculation that her aggressive prosecution of Campbell, and possibly others, had damaged her chances. Campbell once asked the Justice Department to block Yates from handling his prosecution, claiming she was retaliating against him because he had refused to support her husband, Comer Yates, in a Democratic primary against then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney. The Justice Department found no merit in Campbell’s complaint. A jury convicted the former mayor on tax-evasion charges.

People involved in the search process deny that Campbell’s case or any other influenced the congressmen’s recommendations.

Regardless, supporters of Yates got in touch with the White House and the Justice Department, inquiring about her status.

Officials in the White House then asked the congressional delegation to submit Yates’ name. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, the senior Democrat in Georgia’s delegation, put her name back on the list.

Former Rep. George “Buddy” Darden, who chaired the congressional delegation’s advisory panel, declined to discuss the list of recommendations or what happened once his group’s work was completed. But he said the process worked as intended.

“There is nothing unique about this,” Darden said.

Still, as several people knowledgeable about the nomination process pointed out, the appointment ultimately is political, which could work against Yates. She is the only apparent finalist who did not donate to Obama’s campaign (although her husband gave $2,300).

Twyman and his wife, Tashia, each gave Obama $500, as did one of Twyman’s law partners.

Berhold, though, is by far the most politically active among the finalists. He and his wife, Maureen Richmond, contributed $28,250 to federal campaigns last year, records show. Berhold donated $2,000 to Obama, along with $2,300 to Lewis and $1,250 to Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat from Savannah. Both congressmen were among the group that recommended nominees for U.S. attorney. Berhold also gave $10,000 to a political committee that helped pay for Democratic congressional campaigns in Georgia.

Obama has submitted nominations for 20 of the 93 U.S. attorney’s jobs. Many of them have political ties to Obama or to other influential Democrats, an analysis of White House papers and federal election records shows.

The new U.S. attorney in South Dakota, for instance, is Brendan Johnson. His father is Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson. For New York’s southern district, perhaps the highest-profile job among the 93, Obama nominated Preet Bharara, chief counsel to Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer. Neil MacBride, nominated to another desirable job, in Virginia’s eastern district, is a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden.

In all, 14 of the 20 nominated so far, or their business associates, donated to Obama’s campaign. Still, the vast majority of the group also has experience as federal prosecutors. They include five assistant U.S. attorneys whom Obama nominated for their districts’ top jobs. Obama also selected two former U.S. attorneys, both dismissed during the Bush administration.

Anxiety about the northern Georgia appointment may be fueled in part by the amount of time that has elapsed since Obama’s inauguration.

But President George W. Bush did not announce his first appointment for the district — Bill Duffey — until Sept. 4, 2001, almost nine months into his tenure.

President Bill Clinton waited even longer. He nominated Kent Alexander as U.S. attorney on Jan. 26, 1994 — a full year after he took office.

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.


How we got the story

When U.S. Attorney David Nahmias resigned last month to take a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court, speculation about his successor intensified in Atlanta’s legal and political circles. Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began interviewing numerous people familiar with the selection, none of whom would agree to be quoted by name.

However, about a dozen people described parts of the process about which they were knowledgeable, on the condition that they not be identified in an article. Details reported in this article are based on accounts from multiple sources.