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After Jack Abramoff stepped before a D.C. federal judge to plead guilty to tax evasion, mail fraud, and a conspiracy “involving public officials” last week, the face of the Justice Department was Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher, who appeared before the cameras at a post-hearing news conference and declared that “combating public corruption is a top priority of mine.” But one person the newly appointed Fisher didn’t credit during her victory lap was Mary Butler, the lawyer who actually quarterbacked the DOJ team during its 18-month investigation of Abramoff. Butler, 49, is a career prosecutor with extensive experience handling public corruption cases. The Justice Department denied a request to interview Butler, but friends, former colleagues, and defense lawyers who have squared off against her describe her as a determined and evenhanded prosecutor who immerses herself in her job. And that may be bad news for anyone caught up in the Abramoff investigation. “She’s one of the special ones who will turn over every piece of paper, look at every credit card receipt and phone bill,” says Joshua Berman, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal who worked with Butler at the DOJ’s Public Integrity Division. “She’s really good at crossing t’s and dotting i’s.”
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That meticulousness has helped extract guilty pleas from both Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon, a former public relations executive. Those pleas have focused public attention on lawmakers with ties to the pair, a group that, so far, includes Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), John Doolittle (R-Calif.), and Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.) and Sens. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But Butler’s gone after public officials before. She got her start as a prosecutor in 1987, in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, a region as rich in corruption cases as it is in saw grass. During her 12-year tenure there, Butler helped run a tax evasion and money laundering case against executives of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, won the conviction of a Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor for the theft of $1 million in undercover funds, and nailed a local banker for lying to a grand jury about bribes paid to the mayor of Miami Beach. Her toughest assignment came in 1995, when she took on an investigation known as “Operation Greenpalm,” a massive corruption probe focused on Miami’s City Hall and Miami-Dade County’s municipal government. The case involved a yearlong undercover investigation by the FBI and local police, and resulted in the convictions of Miami’s city manager, a local lobbyist, and a number of city and county commissioners. “She’s a very tough advocate,” says Martin Goldberg, a former federal prosecutor who ran Operation Greenpalm with Butler. “We would spend days and weeks and months just immersed in the investigation.” Soon after that investigation wrapped up, in 1998, Butler moved to Washington, one of a number of Florida prosecutors who came to the District during Janet Reno’s tenure as attorney general. She took a job in the office of Independent Counsel Carol Elder Bruce, who was probing Bruce Babbitt, then-secretary of the Interior, and his department’s decision to reject an Indian casino project opposed by tribes that contributed more than $350,000 to Democrats during the 1996 campaign cycle. Of those on Bruce’s staff, Butler had the most experience investigating public corruption, and she was assigned to oversee the investigation of the operations of the Interior Department, a mammoth task that involved obtaining and reviewing huge amounts of internal communications. Within the office, says Bruce, she was a forceful voice in internal debates over how, or whether, bribery charges could be brought based on links between legal campaign donations and the official acts of public officeholders — an issue that is also front and center in the Abramoff investigation. “The Public Integrity Section was taking the position that it’s very difficult to make a bribery case based on campaign contributions,” Bruce says. “We had a more aggressive approach.” Though the investigation did not result in any charges, colleagues in the office were impressed not only by Butler’s experience but her tactics, as well. “She’s not a screamer, she’s not a table-pounder,” says Philip Inglima, a lawyer who worked with Butler in the independent counsel’s office. “She was very conscious of there being no need to haunt or menace people.” (Inglima, a partner at Crowell & Moring, represents Shawn Vassell, a former colleague of Abramoff’s, in the current investigation.) After Bruce’s investigation ended without charges, in 1999, Butler was recommended to the DOJ’s Public Integrity Section by Bruce Udolf, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Florida who had worked on Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigation. That recommendation helped persuade then-section chief Lee Radek to hire her. Once there, say those who’ve worked with her, Butler established herself as one of the division’s go-to prosecutors. Since joining the department, Butler has helped win eight convictions in a wide-ranging bribery and extortion case involving municipal officials in Ohio and Texas. She’s also helped pry a guilty plea from the speaker of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico in an ongoing corruption case known as “Superaqueduct.” Friends say that Butler, who has never married and doesn’t have children, is extremely dedicated to her work and to her nieces and nephews. She is fond of reading, is an amateur sailor who races competitively, and remains involved with the Children’s Cancer Caring Center, a Fort Lauderdale charity she volunteered at while working in Florida. And despite the fact that her next move in the Abramoff investigation could have a major effect on the balance of power on Capitol Hill, she is said not to enjoy the public spotlight. Butler, of course, hasn’t handled the Abramoff case on her own. It’s been staffed by agents from the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service and lawyers from both the DOJ’s Fraud and Public Integrity divisions, a number of whom have connections to South Florida. Helping oversee the case is Fraud Division acting chief Paul Pelletier, who worked with Butler as an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami. Guy Singer, who formerly worked for Reno as a state prosecutor in Miami, is heading the Fraud Division’s day-to-day involvement. One lawyer familiar with the Abramoff case says that Butler and Singer make an effective team because they have different personality types. “Guy is most often the good cop,” he says. “Mary is the bad cop.” Albeit, a bad cop with a sense of humor. She’s been known to tell stubborn defendants that she has a big incentive to try cases because “she always loses weight” when she’s in trial.

Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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