By Meredith Hobbs, Staff Reporter

Cathy M. O’Neil is very organized, a good thing when dealing with organized drug rings – and a not-so-organized drug fighting agency.

O’Neil recently returned to Atlanta and joined King & Spalding as a business litigator after almost 12 years of prosecuting drug dealers and fighting international drug cartels-including a three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Washington as the head of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, or OCDETF.

OCDETF put her organizational and persuasive skills to the test, O’Neil told me over Thai food at Tamarind, just a few blocks from King & Spalding’s new Symphony Tower offices.

When she arrived in Washington in July 2002 as the agency’s new associate director, she’d prosecuted quite a few high-profile drug cases in her eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta.

O’Neil, who grew up in the Cape Cod hamlet of Hyannis, said she loved working as a big-city drug prosecutor. “I honestly saw my job as making the community safer. If one person did not use drugs from my efforts-that was a win.”

Over Masaman chicken curry, O’Neil, now 42, recalled how she felt prosecuting her first drug cases in her late 20s. “I was a little preppy kid who grew up in a very small town sitting across the table from some major drug dealer who’d smuggled in pounds and pounds of marijuana or maybe even shot someone,” she said. “It was all surreal-but fascinating.”

The Washington post was a chance to fight the drug war at the top. OCDETF was formed in 1982 to attack large international drug rings.

The task force coordinates and funds an alphabet soup of federal agencies-the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Coast Guard, federal marshals and federal prosecutors-to work in tandem with state and local officials on major drug interdiction efforts.

This kind of coordination is imperative for wiping out big drug rings, O’Neil said, since at the highest level they function like organized crime.

But when she arrived in Washington in 2002, the agency had lost direction. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the program languished,” she said. It had become a funding mechanism for “whatever people happened to be doing”-generally local, low-level cases.

By 2002, former King & Spalding partner Larry D. Thompson had become the deputy U.S. attorney general and recruited O’Neil and other Atlanta lawyers to the Justice Department.

Turning the task force around

Thompson wanted to revive OCDETF, O’Neil said, explaining that he knew the old task force from his days as a federal prosecutor. He hired O’Neil to help turn the program around.

Instead of funding reactive local enforcement efforts, O’Neil wanted to identify the biggest drug rings and organize enforcement agencies to go after them systematically.

After polling enforcement workers from field agents up to agency directors, OCDETF put together a hit list of about 50 international organizations-mostly in Mexico and Colombia, plus some in Asia, the Netherlands and Israel, O’Neil said.

OCDETF also put a new emphasis on investigating money laundering operations and then tracing them back to drug manufacturing.

“You have to follow the money,” O’Neil said, adding that this can be tough because there are a lot of ways to move and conceal funds-ranging from bundling the cash in a refrigerator and driving it out of the country to using sophisticated investments and securities. “There is a significant volume of money out there in the legitimate system that may have been derived from criminal activity,” she said.

Another big problem, she told me, was that OCDETF did not effectively measure the performance of the groups it funded.

“If you’re going to implement accountability, you have to collect data,” O’Neil said.

By October 2002, she had crafted an interim report that any law enforcement group with OCDETF funding was required to file every six months. That did not win her any friends, O’Neil said, adding that the report was seven pages long.

“Before that, someone could open an OCDETF case-and keep it open for 10 years-and never file a report until the case was closed.”

Instead of asking respondents to measure success by the number of indictments and convictions, which O’Neil calls bean-counting, she asked for data that would measure how well drug fighters disrupted an organization-its goals, targets, techniques and success rates.

“You could work a case for a year and indict 20 people, but if they were all low-level street dealers, you didn’t accomplish anything. Or you could indict just one person who was the head of an organization and kill it.”

O’Neil’s next job was to get the buy-in of the myriad law enforcement agencies that participated in OCDETF. Between October and December, she traveled across the country, explaining the agency’s shift in focus. “It was a yearlong sell job,” she said, adding ruefully that it was “very painful.”

“I kept hearing. ‘We’re not Miami or New York-we can’t do these types of cases,’ ” O’Neil said. But large drug organizations have spread their tentacles beyond the big cities, she said, so “ if you work a case correctly, anyone can tie in to the big organizations.”

And every tentacle of an operation has to be stamped out, which meant cooperation across agencies and regions was imperative. “You’ve got to get every piece of the residual organization or it will rise up again,” O’Neil said, her eyes narrowing intently as she finished her chicken curry.

Back to Atlanta

But just as the new and improved OCDETF was gaining traction, O’Neil’s husband, David E. Nahmias, was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. He was sworn in in December 2004.

The family moved back to Atlanta, but O’Neil continued as director of OCDETF until last September, commuting each week between Atlanta and Washington. She told me she couldn’t leave the task force any earlier because she was in the middle of a big budget fight in Congress and shepherding through the newly instituted performance measures.

She finally resigned in September and accepted an offer from King & Spalding in October. But she delayed her start because her infant son, Michael, then 3 months old, was not yet sleeping through the night. “I could not start a new job that sleep-deprived,” she said.

O’Neil thought this would not take long, since his 2-year-old brother, Steven, slept through the night by 10 weeks. But by March, Michael was still waking up.

O’Neil went ahead and started her new job, realizing, she said, that he might be 10 before he slept through the night. He finally slept all night after her first day of work.

At King & Spalding, O’Neil has joined the business litigation practice, not the government investigations group, as have other colleagues from the Justice Department.

She acknowledged her husband’s position as U.S. Attorney was a factor in her decision, because of the possibility of conflicts in federal prosecutions of white-collar crime.

But she pointed out that she would have no problem defending matters prosecuted by the nation’s other 92 U.S. attorneys-and, from running OCDETF, she knows all of them personally.

The real reason, she said, is that she wants to try cases and there is more opportunity to do that as a business litigator.

The firm’s white-collar practice does not go to trial as much, she said. “That is not the best result for your client,” she observed, explaining the best thing a lawyer can do for a white-collar client is to make the matter quietly disappear.

She’s also interested in trying civil cases. “If there is a class action going to trial, I want to be the person who tries it,” she said.

In the two months since O’Neil has joined King & Spalding, she’s started working on anti-trust matters and breach of contract class actions, including one case where the firm is defending a pharmaceutical benefits management company. In the past few years, PBMs have become a hot target for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

It’s a long way from Operation Busted Manatee, but O’Neil said she’s enjoying the return to civil litigation, which she practiced as a young associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell before becoming a federal prosecutor.

O’Neil is locally famous for her involvement in the Courthouse Line musicals put on by the Atlanta Bar Association.

She directed and choreographed the first three Courthouse Line shows-a feat she mentioned on her application for the OCDETF job. “I wrote that getting 65 lawyers all to dance on the same foot was a remarkable testament to my organizational skills,” she said with a laugh. Coordinating rehearsal times around thespian-lawyers’ demanding work schedules also took some doing, she said.

O’Neil helped launch the first Courthouse Line show in 1999 after then-Atlanta Bar President Greg S. Smith, a federal defender at the time, saw posters in her office from shows she’d done at Harvard Law School.

She described the first show as “very long and put together in a very short amount of time”-but by the third show, “Comity Tonight,” the bar had found its groove.

O’Neil’s musical theater work ended when she moved to Washington, but she said she hopes to work on the next show, slated for spring 2007. She’s already had a cameo in last fall’s show, which chronicled a young Atlanta lawyer’s quest to become the next Francy Graceless on Courthouse TV.

O’Neil said she is ultra-organized because she’s always had a lot of interests and didn’t want to give any up. As a teenager, she juggled competitive figure skating with ballet, drama club and the debate team-plus academics. “All my life I’ve had to figure out a way to keep different balls in the air,” she said.

Staff Reporter Meredith Hobbs can be reached at mhobbs@alm.com.