Legal eagles

No doubt the most prominent local position to be filled by President-elect Barack Obama will be that of United States attorney. The San Diego office has long been a turbulent place. The last permanent holder of the office, Carol Lam, was dismissed during the Bush administration’s infamous 2006 firing spree, in which Lam along with eight other U.S. attorneys were dumped for being out of line with the White House’s political agenda.

Before Lam, there was Alan Bersin, a Los Angeles attorney married to Democrat Lisa Foster, wealthy heir to a San Diego real estate fortune, who helped get Bill Clinton to appoint her husband to the post. Dubbed the “border czar” by Attorney General Janet Reno, Bersin left the office after it became obvious he wouldn’t be promoted to the Justice Department in Washington. His subsequent controversy-wracked tenure as San Diego City Schools superintendent virtually doomed any hopes he had to run for office.

And there was Greg Vega, the Clinton appointee who succeeded Bersin; Vega declined to prosecute Padres owner and fellow Democrat John Moores in connection with his gifts and gratuities — including stock favors — to San Diego city councilwoman Valerie Stallings, also a Democrat, who was forced to resign in 2001.

Currently, Republican Karen Hewitt is interim U.S. attorney. Tradition calls for the president to name a member of his party, but there have been exceptions. In 1977, Jimmy Carter appointed independent Michael Walsh, a 35-year-old Yale Law graduate who later went on to become CEO of Union Pacific Railroad and Tenneco before dying in 1994 at age 51 of a brain tumor.

So far there have been no hints about whom the Obama people have in mind, but as the Bersin case shows, donating money to presidential campaign efforts hasn’t hurt past potential candidates. With that in mind, an examination of the haul taken in by the Obama campaign may prove predictive. Or not.

Much of the money going to Obama came from trial lawyers, a group seeking to loosen restrictions on stockholder lawsuits pushed by the Bush administration. According to federal campaign-disclosure records, through the middle of October Obama had received a total of $115,874 from local attorneys who gave their address as San Diego, more than twice the $41,116 given to GOP candidate John McCain.

Heaviest support came from lawyers with the downtown firm of Latham & Watkins, with a grand total of $9361. (Latham lawyers were also McCain’s biggest local-attorney donors, giving a total of $5800.) Attorneys from the firm of Morrison & Foerster gave a total of $4000.

Among individual attorneys, big hitters included David Casey Jr., partner of Fred Schenk, the brother of former Democratic congresswoman Lynn Schenk, whose own candidate, Hillary Clinton, flamed out. Casey gave a total of $4600, the legal maximum. Another lawyer giving to Obama was Brant Noziska of Rockwood & Noziska, a trial lawyer who specializes in construction-defect litigation. Janice Brown — who was named Lawyer of the Year by the California Association of Black Lawyers in 1995 — and her associates gave a total of $4300. Brown is on the board of the Centre City Development Corporation, the controversial redevelopment arm of the City of San Diego.

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