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When Paul McNulty was tapped to become the Justice Department’s deputy attorney general last year, the guessing game began as to who would fill his shoes as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Would the highly coveted position go to someone picked by Virginia Republican lawmakers looking to reward top fund-raisers or to a Bush administration loyalist with political ambitions of his own? The answer was neither. In tapping Charles “Chuck” Rosenberg for the post, the administration opted for a well-regarded career prosecutor to lead an office that has become the hub of major terrorism prosecutions since the Sept. 11 attacks. “I think it’s apparent to everyone that Chuck is a merit appointment,” says James Comey, the former deputy attorney general for whom Rosenberg worked as chief of staff from 2004 to the summer of 2005. “Nobody thinks Chuck got this job because he knocked on the most doors during the local dog-catcher campaign. Chuck got this job because he knows what he’s doing and he’s good at what he does.” News of the Rosenberg pick was greeted with relief by current and former federal prosecutors in Virginia and the District. “They needed someone with experience,” says Peter White, who worked as a former assistant U.S. attorney with Rosenberg and is now a partner at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. Though the choice of Rosenberg may seem like a no-brainer to line prosecutors, picks for a U.S. attorney slot are often based on political contacts, rather than straight prosecutorial experience. A prime example in that regard is the man whom Rosenberg is replacing, McNulty, who cultivated a reputation on the Hill as a savvy operator and reliable Republican. Among those whose political connections helped earn them U.S. attorney posts: Strom Thurmond Jr., the late senator’s son, who became U.S. attorney in South Carolina at age 28 during the president’s first term; R. Alexander Acosta, the new U.S. attorney in Miami, who, before a controversial tenure in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, had worked at a conservative think tank and for Kenneth Starr at Kirkland & Ellis; and Catherine Hanaway, who directed the Bush-Cheney campaign in Missouri in 2000 and was named U.S. attorney in St. Louis last year after losing a bid for Missouri secretary of state. Rosenberg, 45, doesn’t fit that mold. Last month he was appointed interim U.S. attorney for the Alexandria, Va.-based district, and, according to several Justice Department sources, the White House is expected to soon nominate him for the job on a permanent basis. A Long Island, N.Y., native, Rosenberg worked as an aide to two Democratic congressmen in the 1980s. After law school he was hired into the Tax Division at Main Justice through the attorney general’s honors program. A year later, in 1991, he joined the Eastern District as a line prosecutor and stayed for a decade, spending four of those years as head of the major crimes section. After two years in private practice at Hunton & Williams, he returned to government, in 2002, and earned a reputation for expertise on national security matters as a counsel first to FBI Director Robert Mueller and later to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. From early 2004 to the summer of 2005 he served as chief of staff to Comey in the deputy attorney general’s office. After Comey left Justice for a corporate job at Lockheed Martin, Rosenberg served as interim U.S. attorney in Houston before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appointed him to the Virginia post. Despite Rosenberg’s ties to top Justice officials in the Bush administration, a number of current and former assistant U.S. attorneys of both parties view him not as a partisan player but as one of their own. “He is apolitical,” says DeMaurice Smith, a former assistant U.S. attorney and counsel to the deputy attorney general in the Clinton-era Justice Department who is now a partner at Latham & Watkins. WALKING THE LINE Set amidst the sprawl of suburban Washington, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria is the venue of choice for major terrorism cases, including the prosecutions of accused Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, American Taliban John Walker Lindh, and would-be presidential assassin Ahmed Omar Abu Ali. The office also retains its traditional role as the center of espionage prosecutions. In addition, its prosecutors have been chosen to take the lead on investigating allegations of fraud in Iraq contracting and to handle cases of alleged abuse of foreign prisoners by civilian contractors and the CIA. But the Eastern District isn’t just Alexandria; the 127-lawyer office stretches from Northern Virginia to Norfolk. During fiscal 2004 the district was the venue for more than 4,000 criminal cases and 1,000 civil cases. While the office bears a black eye for the bungling of Transportation Security Administration lawyer Carla Martin in the Moussaoui prosecution, Rosenberg took his first victory lap as its U.S. attorney late last week when a federal jury found former Naval intelligence officer Jay Lentz guilty of the 1996 murder of his wife. Rosenberg’s background as a prosecutor stands in contrast to that of two top DOJ officials with whom he’ll work closely. Alice Fisher, the recess-appointed head of Justice’s Criminal Division, has never worked as a prosecutor. And Rosenberg’s predecessor and nominal boss, McNulty, had no prosecutorial experience before his stint in the Eastern District. Rosenberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has handled dozens of major criminal cases as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District. Among the cases he worked on in the 1990s: the spy prosecutions of Aldrich Ames and David Sheldon Boone, a locally notorious kidnapping and murder case against defendant Christopher Wills, and a fraud case against executives of the United Way. During one trial in the mid-1990s, Rosenberg created a ripple in the office by jumping into the midst of a courtroom brawl between U.S. marshals and a criminal defendant. “He’s served his time in the trenches,” says Jonathan Shapiro, a Northern Virginia criminal defense lawyer who’s faced off against Rosenberg in the courtroom. That’s not to say that Rosenberg, whom friends label a moderate Republican, isn’t well connected. He remains friends with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, a former roommate from their days at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He’s also a tennis partner of legendary defense lawyer Plato Cacheris and has earned the affectionate moniker of “Virge” (for Virginia) from David Margolis, the Justice Department’s top career official. Comey has known Rosenberg since their days together as line prosecutors in the Eastern District. And Rosenberg’s relationships with Kenneth Wainstein, the U.S. attorney in Washington who was recently nominated to head Justice’s National Security Division, and FBI Director Mueller date to his tenure working at the FBI, from 2002 to 2003. WINNING THE BEAUTY PAGEANT Despite his credentials, Rosenberg wasn’t a shoo-in for the job. When McNulty was elevated to deputy attorney general, a strong field of lawyers expressed interest in the position. In part, that’s a reflection of the elevated status the Eastern District of Virginia has enjoyed during the Bush administration. Virginia’s senators forwarded five names to the White House for consideration. They included Rosenberg, Howard “Toby” Vick Jr., a former commonwealth’s attorney; Lewis Powell III, the son of the deceased Supreme Court justice; Stephen Baril, a former candidate for Virginia attorney general; and Edward McNally, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Illinois. Rosenberg and Vick emerged as the leading candidates, and, according to sources familiar with the nomination process, Vick had the support of Virginia’s Republican senatorial delegation, particularly Sen. George Allen, who once worked at Vick’s law firm. (A spokesman for Allen’s office says he is “not aware” that the senator expressed any preference.) Another factor working against Rosenberg was his close association with Comey, the independent-minded former deputy attorney general who earned the ire of some in the White House for his appointment of a special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame leak case and for his reluctance to sign off on Bush’s warrantless surveillance program. But Comey isn’t reviled by everyone in the White House, and Rosenberg’s background in national security matters seems to have won the day. “My impression is that the attorney general and the White House wanted somebody who had hands-on experience in terrorism,” says Richard Cullen, a Republican-appointed former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. A DEPARTMENT LOYALIST Those who know Rosenberg say he seems cut from the same cloth as Comey and Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and special prosecutor in the Plame case, in that as a career prosecutor, his first loyalty lies with the Justice Department as an institution, rather than his political masters. That’s not to say Rosenberg is an advocate for greater civil liberties protections. In fact, during his tenure in the deputy attorney general’s office, Rosenberg was selected twice to go before a House committee to tout some of the most controversial aspects of the USA Patriot Act. He also offered a robust defense of the department’s use of the material witness law, a law used to detain dozens of Muslim men after Sept. 11 without charges. Nor has Rosenberg been a friend of greater protections for the press. After New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for nearly three months for refusing to testify in the Plame leak case, Rosenberg, then the interim U.S. attorney in Houston (a position he held for nine months before this appointment), appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to argue against the passage of a federal law protecting reporters from court subpoenas. During Rosenberg’s stint as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Texas, his office was criticized by defense attorneys for its aggressive criminal prosecution of routine immigration violations in border towns. From 2000 to 2002, Rosenberg took a stab at private practice, joining the McLean, Va., office of Hunton & Williams. His reason for leaving the government: “Money,” says Robert Spencer, the Eastern District prosecutor who has led the Moussaoui case and is a longtime Rosenberg friend. During his time as a defense attorney, he represented the owners of a Virginia painting company charged with tax fraud. And not long after Sept. 11, he represented Mohammed Salman, a Lebanese-born defendant who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice stemming from an FBI immigration investigation of Salman’s brother. But Rosenberg wasn’t cut out for private practice. “He hated it,” says Spencer. A paid legal commentator for NBC during his time at Hunton, on television Rosenberg often sounded less like a defense lawyer than a Justice Department spokesman. “The events of September 11th will go down as one of the darkest days in American history,” he told NBC’s Pete Williams, after the Justice Department announced it would seek the death penalty in Moussaoui’s case. “Is it appropriate for those who conspired to do this act to be put to death? I think so.” In the summer of 2002, Rosenberg left Hunton to become a counterterrorism adviser to Mueller at the FBI and began his steady climb through the ranks at the Justice Department. If Rosenberg is confirmed, line prosecutors in the Eastern District aren’t expecting him to initiate a radical shake-up in the office. “A district like that that’s in the headlines every day, you have to have a qualified guy over there,” says Timothy Shea, a former prosecutor in the Eastern District who’s now a partner at Bingham McCutchen.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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