Former U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly III returned to his old office March 17 to finish packing his papers and possessions, the remnants of a long career in public life that ended abruptly earlier this month.
“Over the years, you accumulate a lot of stuff,” he said, papers shuffling occasionally as he talked by phone from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wilmington’s Nemours Building.
For Oberly, it was a bittersweet moment as he recounted the professional highlights of the past 40 years. In that span, he served three terms as Delaware’s attorney general, ran a losing U.S. Senate campaign in 1994 and, finally, in 2010 accepted President Barack Obama’s nomination to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware.
In his six years in office, Oberly, a Democrat, orchestrated a “monumental” effort to convict three defendants of cyberstalking resulting in death—a first for federal prosecutors—and a years-long bid to add Wilmington Trust Corp. as a criminal defendant to a pending criminal case against four bank executives. Both cases, he said, were among the most satisfying of his career.
A 1971 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, he got his start in the Delaware Department of Justice, where he served first as an assistant prosecutor and later as the state’s top prosecutor from 1983 to 1995.
As attorney general, Oberly built a reputation for overseeing some of the state’s most high-profile cases. In 1985, after nine years and two trials, his office secured a guilty plea from Robert David Hughes, a Kent County man accused of strangling his wife. He also handled the prosecution of Steven Brian Pennell, believed to be Delaware’s first serial killer, who in 1992 was the first man to be executed in the state since 1946.
On the civil side, Oberly and Bartholomew J. Dalton, then serving as chief deputy attorney general, in 1983 successfully pushed in the Delaware Court of Chancery to add four seats to the four-member board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Delaware nonstock charitable corporation and one of the aviation pioneer’s remaining assets after his 1976 death.
The additions included an African-American and two women, who later elected a ninth member. In 1985, the board voted to sell Hughes Aircraft, an aerospace and defense contractor to General Motors for more than $5 billion, allowing the biomedical research institute to grow dramatically.
The two decades Oberly spent in the Attorney General’s Office established him as a force both in Delaware’s legal community and in its political landscape. In 1994, he fell short of wresting one of Delaware’s U.S. Senate seats from incumbent William V. Roth, losing at the ballot box by 13 percentage points.
The experience, however, was a positive one, Oberly said. And it reinforced a valuable lesson about public service that he had learned as attorney general.
“I think what I learned through politics is you’re never as good as you think you are and never as bad as someone else thinks you are,” he said. “You have to expose yourself to the public, and the most important thing is the job, not your next election.”
After the Senate campaign, Oberly retreated into private practice, opening a boutique firm that, after several iterations, was eventually absorbed by Philadelphia-based powerhouse Drinker Biddle & Reath. By 2006, though, Oberly was itching to return to a life of public service.
He saw an open presidential election looming in 2008 with a promising Democratic field, and he began laying the groundwork for his eventual nomination. Over the years, Oberly had become close with Beau Biden, former Delaware attorney general and the late son of Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. He applied, and with the official recommendation of Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and the support of the vice president, Obama named him to serve as U.S. attorney.
He was confirmed to the post Dec. 10, 2010.
In more than six years as U.S. attorney, Oberly wielded jurisdiction as broad as the Delaware attorney general’s, but was afforded wider discretion than he had in the state-level post.
“They’re attorneys over there [that] have heavy, heavy caseloads,” he said of the Delaware DOJ. “You’ve got to do the best you can with a crushing caseload and ever-changing standards. That’s where you learn to become a trial attorney.”
In the U.S. Attorney’s Office, on the other hand, the cases tend to be more complex and require far more resources, Oberly said. As a result, he was challenged to invest his resources wisely, while keeping a fair and open mind.
“You’ve got to be able to look at things with perspective, while upholding society’s values,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to take in the entire panorama of what’s happened.”
“Always remember you’re here to be fair. That’s why they call it the Department of Justice,” he said.
While fair, Oberly was also tenacious in pursuing some of his office’s most important cases.
In 2016, the office secured life sentences for three members of the Matusiewicz family, in a case stemming from Thomas Matusiewicz’s 2013 killing of his former daughter-in-law, Christine Belford, and her friend outside the New Castle County Courthouse, now the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center, in Wilmington.
Thomas Matusiewicz turned the gun on himself after exchanging shots with police, but an investigation revealed that his widow, Lenore, and two children had waged a three-year campaign to stalk and harass Belford online, and even started rumors that the mother of three had sexually abused her oldest daughter. A federal judge found that accusation to be baseless.
Prosecutors pointed to a trove of emails and other correspondences to back up their charges of cyberstalking resulting in death, conspiracy and interstate stalking, wading into largely untested waters.
“The successful prosecution and sentencing of the defendants responsible in the first federal conviction of cyberstalking resulting in death is truly welcomed news for all federal, state and local law enforcement involved in the investigation,” Delaware State Police Colonel Nathaniel McQueen Jr. said at the time, announcing the sentences. “This investigation is a landmark case that emphasizes the impact and benefit to the community when all agencies are working together.”
The Wilmington Trust case, the “most complex” in the office, has required the full-time efforts of four prosecutors. In 2015, Oberly’s office added the bank, once Delaware’s largest, to a criminal case against its former president, Robert Harra, and three other top officials. Prosecutors have accused the bank and its brass of hiding millions of dollars in real estate losses from federal regulators and investors, in an effort to keep its true financial state out of the public eye.
The losses, however, did become public, leading to a huge drop in stock prices and its forced purchase by M&T Bank in a government-forced fire sale.
Oberly declined to comment on the specifics of the case, which was slated for trial in October. But if federal prosecutors succeed, it would be the first time a bank is held criminally responsible for conduct related to the 2008 financial crisis.
Oberly, however, will not be a part of the prosecution.
On March 10, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanded the resignations of 46 holdover U.S. attorneys from the Obama administration. The news came rather abruptly, and the officials were given no warning that their ouster was imminent.
Oberly learned of the situation when Dalton, his old friend and former deputy, called that afternoon to offer his condolences, the men said. By then, rumors of Oberly’s dismissal had spread across Wilmington, and it was only after their discussion that Oberly confirmed his fate with DOJ staff in Washington.
“It was very abrupt,” Oberly said. “To be shut out before you have time to clear out your office is a little disconcerting.”
Oberly returned to his office March 17 after a late-winter snowstorm hampered his efforts to collect his belongings. By then, his top lieutenant, David C. Weiss, had assumed control of the U.S. Attorney’s Office on an acting basis—the second time in his career. Weiss, a Republican, has been said to be interested in pursuing the nomination to take over the post permanently.
Oberly declined to comment of Weiss’s plans, but he did say that the office was being left “in good hands.”
“[Weiss] knows the office inside and out. The office, in my opinion, is not going to skip a beat,” he said.
As for Oberly, he is uncertain about what his future holds. Formerly a longtime adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, he had been barred from teaching while serving as U.S. attorney. On March 17, he said he had not ruled out the possibility of returning to teaching, though he had not yet given it much thought.
“I haven’t really thought about what options are available or what I want to do,” he said. “I don’t think I want to fully retire.”
“I’m not going to rule anything out at this point,” he added.