It's become an open secret that state Sen. Ed Tarver is on the short list to be appointed U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia by President Obama.
If he gets the job, he'd be the first black to serve in the post and would go from representing the core of Richmond County on the state level to being the top federal prosecutor for a district covering 43 counties, stretching from Thurmond Lake to the Florida border with offices in Augusta, Savannah, Statesboro, Brunswick, Dublin and Waycross.
The job pays about $150,000 a year, with oversight of 26 assistant U.S. attorneys -- 19 of them handling criminal cases and seven for civil matters.
But for a top prosecutor, Mr. Tarver would come into the job with little prosecution experience. According to his biographies on his law firm's and the Georgia Senate's Web sites, he's been a trial attorney since 1992 and primarily deals with civil cases, with an emphasis on employment discrimination and public finance law.
He's never worked for a U.S. attorney's office, a district attorney's office or a solicitor's office. What experience he does have as a courtroom prosecutor has been on misdemeanor ordinance violation cases as a stand-in for Columbia County Attorney Doug Bachelor, his colleague at the Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley law firm.
THAT HOLE in his resume shouldn't matter, say attorneys intimately familiar with the responsibilities of the position. In fact, based on their descriptions of what a U.S. attorney does, Mr. Tarver might be just what Mr. Obama is looking for.
"Prosecutorial experience is a big plus, but not necessarily fatal to a candidate if he doesn't have that," said Ronald Carlson, a University of Georgia School of Law professor who during the Bush administration served on a judicial nominating committee as a delegate for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
"It's not a prerequisite by any stretch of the imagination," said Eddie Booth, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia and a Bush appointee who worked in the office for 36 years before taking over in 2007. "I think if someone is a practicing trial attorney, familiar with the courtroom, familiar with litigation, that is sufficient."
High-profile drug cases and public corruption trials put U.S. attorneys' offices in the headlines, but the job involves myriad other legal areas with a major civil component, Mr. Carlson said. The office handles civil prosecutions, acts as defense counsel when a federal agency gets sued and works to collect debts owed to the federal government. Examples might be federal tort cases, representing military doctors accused of malpractice, representing Veterans Affairs hospitals or representing postal employees who get sued.
Even in criminal cases, federal prosecutions are far more involved than those on the state level, with an amount of documentation akin to civil cases. Such is the case with white-collar crimes such as Medicare, investment and corporate fraud, Mr. Carlson said.
"Lots of paperwork," he said. "Lots of discovery. Lots of pre-trial work that goes into them."
A U.S. ATTORNEY'S most crucial role might be as an office administrator and political envoy.
"The primary responsibility is to implement the law enforcement initiatives of the president and the attorney general," said Aiken County Solicitor J. Strom Thurmond Jr., a former South Carolina U.S. attorney. "You've got to understand, this is a political appointment."
When he was nominated in 2001, Mr. Thurmond was only 29 and was roundly criticized as inexperienced and put in place by his famous father. At the time, he'd been practicing law for 31/2 years -- 21/2 of them with the solicitor's office.
But he left the position in 2005 with respect from his peers and former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who applauded him for personally winning the state's first federal death penalty case.
"Looking back, it would have been helpful to me to have had more federal prosecutorial experience," Mr. Thurmond said. "In the federal criminal system, there's a learning curve that I had to learn."
But U.S. attorneys don't have to go to court if they don't want to, he said, and in hindsight, when the boss spends days or weeks in court, other responsibilities get put on hold.
"I got in the courtroom because I wanted to," Mr. Thurmond said. "But in all candor, when I got in the courtroom, I was not behind a desk running the office."
MR. CARLSON said the White House will be looking for someone who can work with office staff and local officials throughout the district. The pick should also be seen as one who unites, especially in light of the heat U.S. attorneys' offices took during the Bush years over allegations of politically driven prosecutions, he said.
One example has been accusations that a Republican agenda brought down former state Sen. Charles Walker. Public confidence can affect juries, and for that reason, an appointment of a minority and someone considered to be of high integrity might enhance the credibility of prosecutions, Mr. Carlson said.
Other plus factors would be proven political skills, leadership in community affairs and being capable of marshaling monetary and human resources for a very well-funded office.
"That's what a good U.S. attorney should be -- someone who can manage the multitude of problems in running an office," said Martinez attorney Richard Goolsby, who spent 20 years as an assistant U.S. attorney.
He said he would have had no qualms about working for a boss who had no criminal prosecution experience.
"As long as they were an experienced attorney and a good people person -- that is, a good office manager with people skills," he said.
OTHER ADVANTAGES for a candidate, Mr. Carlson said, would be a military background and having been involved in some capacity in the federal judicial system.
After graduating from Augusta State University in 1981, Mr. Tarver spent seven years as an Army field artillery officer. After earning his law degree from UGA in 1991, he clerked for Dudley Bowen Jr., a former chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. He now serves on the U.S. District Court's Attorney Advisory Committee.
Mr. Tarver has handled at least one high-profile criminal case: the defense of Augusta garbage contractor Kester Uzochukwu, who pleaded no contest to theft by dodging landfill tipping fees and was sentenced to eight years' probation in 2003.
Mr. Tarver would not comment for this article. If chosen, he would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Booth said he expects to be replaced sometime this year, which typically happens under a new president, at which point he'll retire.
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE MISSION OF A U.S. ATTORNEY
There are 93 U.S. attorneys, including those stationed in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. They have three statutory responsibilities under U.S. law:
- The prosecution of federal criminal cases
- The prosecution and defense of civil cases in which the United States is a party
- The collection of debts owed to the federal government which are administratively uncollectible
Source: U.S. Department of Justice, www.usdoj.gov
LEGAL AND POLITICAL BACKGROUND
State Sen. Ed Tarver took office in 2005 in a special election after the criminal conviction of Charles Walker, who had defeated Mr. Tarver for the Senate District 22 seat the year before. In 2008, Mr. Tarver defeated former Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams to retain the seat.
From Mr. Tarver's resume:
- Graduated from Glenn Hills High School in 1977
- Graduated from Augusta State University in 1981
- Spent seven years as an Army field artillery officer
- Graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1991
- Served as law clerk for U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr.
- Entered private practice in 1992 as an associate with Hull, Towill, Norman & Barrett -- now Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley -- Augusta's largest law firm
- Became a partner in the firm in 1999
- Served as chairman of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce
- Serves on the board of directors for the Georgia Bank & Trust Co., the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce
- Received the 2008 Augusta NAACP President's Award
- In the Senate, serves as the secretary of the Banking and Financial Institutions committee and sits on the Appropriations, Economic Development, Special Judiciary and Government Oversight committees, in addition to the Appropriations committee's Judicial, Public Safety and Criminal Justice subcommittees
Source: Mr. Tarver's biography on the Georgia General Assembly's Web site, www.legis.state.ga.us.