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Even defense lawyers think he’s fair. That’s probably a good sign for Robert Spencer, 38, who has been tapped as the new chief of general crimes for the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Spencer fills the spot left vacant last month when Charles Rosenberg left for the McLean, Va., office of Richmond’s Hunton & Williams. The two lawyers recently worked together on the high-profile case against Charles Dickerson, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation last term of United States v. Miranda before Dickerson was convicted of bank robbery and two other charges on Oct. 6. Says Rosenberg of his successor: “He’s extraordinarily well-qualified, smart, and well-respected by people in the office.” Across the table from Rosenberg and Spencer in United States v. Dickerson was James Hundley of Briglia & Hundley in Fairfax, Va., Dickerson’s court-appointed attorney. Says Hundley of Spencer: “He’s an aggressive prosecutor, but not in the sense that he yells and carries on. His aggressiveness comes through in his thoroughness, his readiness.” U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey chose Spencer at a time of transition in the office. Two lawyers in the Criminal Division have recently departed for Hunton & Williams, two others have gone elsewhere in private practice, and one retired. In addition, even Fahey’s job may be on the line, depending on the outcome of the presidential election. Spencer “is experienced and competent and is an excellent trial lawyer, but perhaps most important of all, he has excellent judgment,” Fahey says. “I think he will do a great job as supervisor.” PRIMARILY A PROSECUTOR Spencer has spent most of his legal career working as a government prosecutor. Just out of the University of Chicago Law School in 1987, Spencer signed on as an associate in the Washington, D.C. office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. In 1991, he traded private practice for a job at the Department of Justice, focusing on bank fraud cases in the Criminal Division. He stayed at Main Justice for three years, except for 10 months in the Eastern District as a special assistant. In 1994, he and his wife moved to Burlington, Vt., and he took a job at a firm known at the time as Dinse, Erdmann & Clapp. A New Hampshire native, Spencer says he was drawn to settling down in New England with his family. But one year after the Burlington move, his wife received a great job offer in the D.C. area. They moved back, and Spencer started work in Alexandria as an assistant U.S. attorney. As chief of what some prosecutors call the “major crimes” section, Spencer will manage the day-to-day operations of the unit, says Fahey. Spencer will determine which cases are taken on by general crimes; assign them to individual prosecutors; oversee affidavits, arrests, and search warrants; and review indictments from his section. He will continue to carry a limited caseload, as well. One of those cases is the prosecution of Jean-Philippe Wispelaere, a former Australian intelligence officer charged with selling U.S. defense secrets. Spencer has been working on the Wispelaere matter, which has already required court appearances for a competency hearing and other matters, along with assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Haynes. It’s not Spencer’s first espionage case. In 1998, he prosecuted Theresa Squillacote, a former Pentagon lawyer who was convicted of conspiracy and attempting to spy for East Germany along with two other defendants. Senior Litigation Counsel Randy Bellows also worked on that trial. In addition to Hundley, other defense lawyers describe Spencer as reasonable and well-spoken. Jeffrey Zimmerman, an Alexandria criminal defense lawyer, says that, in cases where Spencer was his opposing counsel, he found him to have “a very low-key, even-keel style.” He adds, “I think he is fair. And I think that’s a critical quality for a prosecutor, particularly in a supervisory position.” Hundley observes that Spencer is not hell-bent on bringing every case to trial. “He clearly analyzes his cases and, given what his role in the system is, gives fair choices.” Spencer is also known for his occasionally rapid-fire speech. “Sometimes, he gives the court reporters a hard time,” Hundley jokes. Under Spencer’s command are approximately a dozen litigators, although it is getting tougher to persuade top lawyers to stay on the government payroll because of the lure of salaries in the private sector. There has always been a disparity between private practice and the pay at the U.S. attorney’s office, which ranges from about $55,000 for entry-level lawyers to the $122,000 Fahey receives. But in the past few years, firm salaries have shot up so much that relatively green lawyers are taking home “so much more than we can offer even our most senior people,” Fahey notes. “Whether or not we can fill those positions will depend on the budget for the U.S. attorneys, which is pending on Capitol Hill and which at this time looks like it won’t be set until after the election,” she says. As for job security in the office, Fahey, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, says that all supervisors serve at the pleasure of the U.S. attorney. And the U.S. attorney serves at the pleasure of the president. “Depending on the outcome of the election, I will be exploring other options,” she says.

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