Obama nominates Atlanta’s Yates for top Justice post

United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates announces that a federal grand jury indicted State Representative Tyrone Brooks on charges that he misappropriated almost $ 1 million in charitable funds during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell building in Atlanta on Thursday May 16th, 2013.

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United States Attorney Sally Quillian Yates announces that a federal grand jury indicted State Representative Tyrone Brooks on charges that he misappropriated almost $ 1 million in charitable funds during a press conference at the Richard B. Russell building in Atlanta on Thursday May 16th, 2013.

A few of the cases U.S. Attorney Sally Yates has prosecuted:

— Yates and others led an investigation of corruption at Hartsfield International Airport. She successfully prosecuted former Atlanta City Councilman Ira Jackson and a businessman on bribery and other charges.

— In 2000 former Fulton County Commissioner Michael Hightower pleaded guilty to public corruption charges. Former Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis later pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent, and his chief of staff admitted taking bribes.

— In 2006 Yates prosecuted former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell on corruption charges. A federal jury acquitted him of the corruption charges but convicted him of three counts of tax evasion.

— In 2006 Yates oversaw the fraud case of former state schools superintendent Linda Schrenko, who stole more than $600,000 in federal education money.

She shook up Atlanta politics by prosecuting some of its top elected officials. She sent the Olympic bomber to prison for the rest of his life. She won bipartisan support in an era of bitter political acrimony.

That record may elevate Sally Yates, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, to the top ranks of the Justice Department. On Monday President Barack Obama announced he will nominate her to be deputy attorney general – the department’s No. 2 post.

Yates, 54, would replace Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, who steps down in January. Her appointment must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

John Horn, Yates’ chief assistant, will become acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia until Obama appoints a successor.

Yates’ nomination drew praise from Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. Isakson and Chambliss called her “an exceptionally skilled attorney with a strong record of public service and a well-qualified nominee to be deputy attorney general.”

Sen.-elect David Perdue said he has “heard very positive things about Ms. Yates” but stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Yates did not respond to requests for comment Monday. She has been U.S. Attorney here since 2010 and has more than 20 years of experience as a federal prosecutor. In a career speckled with high-profile cases, she prosecuted Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty to bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham and is serving four consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole.

In an interview with the AJC last year, Yates called the Rudolph case “one of the most interesting cases I’ve ever done” and said it drove home the value of teamwork.

“I don’t care how good a prosecutor you are,” she said. “If you hadn’t had really extraordinary FBI and ATF agents who were incredibly dedicated and worked day in and day out literally for years, it wouldn’t matter how good you are.”

Yates focused much of her career on public corruption, winning convictions of a who’s who of Atlanta politics. Among those she successfully prosecuted: former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, former Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis and former state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

‘Disarmingly cordial’

“Even in an adversarial setting you had to respect her professionalism,” said Josh Kenyon, Skandalakis’ chief of staff, who served six months in prison for accepting $14,000 in bribes. “She was disarmingly cordial and courteous while aggressively building the government’s case against you.”

Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias, a former U.S. attorney, worked with Yates on a several high-profile cases.

“I think Sally is as good a federal prosecutor as there is in the country,” Nahmias said. “She’s smart and a very talented advocate. More importantly, she has great judgment and a real sense of fairness.”

Critics have occasionally questioned Yates’ motivation for prosecutions. Last year Gov. Nathan Deal suggested an FBI inquiry into the turmoil surrounding the state ethics board was timed to coincide with his re-election bid. Yates declined to comment on the accusations at the time.

Campbell – acquitted of corruption charges in 2006 but found guilty of three counts of tax evasion – called the federal investigation of him racist. Last year, state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, said his pending prosecution on fraud charges is retaliation for his efforts to bring attention to the unsolved lynching of two black couples in 1946.

Yates has rejected suggestion she has been unfair. Some who have worked with and against her also dispute that characterization.

“I don’t believe that the Campbell case was racially inspired,” said Jerry Froelich, Campbell’s attorney. “Nor do I believe there was any improper motive for bringing the case.”

“I think she is as fair-minded a person as you will ever find,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Story. “I have never sensed that any of her offices’ investigations were driven by anything but a quest for justice.”

Obama has had a tough time getting appointees through a gridlocked Senate gridlocked. But Isakson’s support bodes well for Yates.

Bipartisan fans

Yates would be the top deputy to Loretta Lynch, who was recently nominated to replace Attorney General Eric Holder, assuming both are confirmed.

Nahmias said Yates has had “the confidence of both Republican and Democratic political appointees for 25 years now.”

“Unfortunately, almost everyone, no matter how talented, has trouble getting confirmed these days,” Nahmias said. “It’s hard to predict. In terms of the merits of anyone appointed to this position, I can’t think of anyone more qualified.”

As U.S. attorney Yates supervises about 100 federal lawyers who handle a variety of criminal and civil matters. An Atlanta native, she is the daughter of former Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Kelley Quillian and the wife of former Democratic candidate Comer Yates.

A 1986 graduate of the University of Georgia law school, she practiced commercial law before joining the Justice Department.

She was an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta from 1989 to 2002. For most of that time she was chief of the fraud and public corruption section. She was first assistant U.S. attorney from 2002 until 2010, when she became U.S. attorney.

Yates’ father retired from the Court of Appeals in 1985 and came under fire for what was then the highest pension of any state retiree. He lost nearly 40 percent of his pension amid the resulting controversy and sued to have it restored. The Georgia Supreme Court later ruled his pension was not improper, but Quillian did not live to see it. He committed suicide.

In last year’s AJC interview, Yates said her father’s death was “heartbreaking.”

“A lot of people live through traumatic incidents in their lives,” she said. “Certainly, losing any family member to suicide carries with it a special kind of pain. As traumatic as his death was, over the years I’ve come not to want to define his life, or my time with him, in the manner in which he died, but rather in all those years that he lived.”

Staff writers Greg Bluestein and Daniel Malloy contributed to this article.