South Florida

Five still in running for U.S. attorney in South Florida, awaiting word from Trump

The candidates, clockwise from top left: Frank Ledee, Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz, Jon Sale, John Couriel and Roy Altman.
The candidates, clockwise from top left: Frank Ledee, Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz, Jon Sale, John Couriel and Roy Altman.

President Donald Trump eliminated all of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys through firings and resignations three months ago but has yet to fill a single position — not even the one he considers a priority, the Southern District of Florida.

Six candidates, mostly current and former prosecutors from South Florida, interviewed in April and May with senior Justice Department lawyers for the coveted job of becoming the region's top law enforcement official. But one of them, Dave Aronberg, the state attorney in Palm Beach County, told the Miami Herald Wednesday that he has withdrawn his application.

Speculation continues to swirl around Trump's possible pick for the new U.S. attorney in Miami, yet there doesn't appear to be consensus around a front runner though there are a few favorites in the mix.

A White House spokesperson said Tuesday the administration could not comment on “personnel decisions,” adding it is “pleased with the great candidates who have expressed an interest in serving their country through the Department of Justice.”

In Florida, the process for selecting the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida, has changed this year. Instead of using the traditional federal Judicial Nominating Commission to recommend a short list of finalists, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio opted to skip that initial step and directly recommend a handful of candidates to the White House and Justice Department.

The revision was supposed to speed up the process, which remains a blend of intense legal and political scrutiny of the candidates.

But since January, the Trump administration has been hobbled by a lack of progress in filling key positions throughout the Justice Department and other agencies. Perhaps more significant, a widening scandal over the FBI’s investigation of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign has likely discouraged talented people from seeking to work for the new administration.

Republican Bob Martinez, a former U.S. attorney in Miami who once served as chairman of the federal JNC in South Florida, said attracting a large pool of qualified candidates for the position of U.S. attorney can be challenging for many reasons under stable political conditions.

“It can be more challenging when the political climate in Washington creates an atmosphere of instability and distrust at main Justice, causing candidates to question whether they will be allowed to do their jobs effectively if selected,” Martinez said Tuesday.

“However, the handful of individuals whose names are mentioned [for U.S. attorney in South Florida] is testament that the importance of this job still manages to attract top lawyers committed to public service, regardless of the political uncertainties in Washington.”

The remaining five candidates being considered for U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida are:

▪  Roy Altman, 35, worked as a federal prosecutor for six years, handling hundreds of criminal cases, including the conviction of a postal worker’s killer. In early 2014, he became the office’s deputy chief of special prosecutions, focusing on the sexual exploitation of children and federal violent crimes. A native Spanish speaker, he attended Columbia University and Yale Law School before clerking for an influential federal appeals court judge, Stanley Marcus. Altman, a partner in the prominent Miami law firm Podhurst Orseck, is considered among the favored candidates.

▪  John Couriel, 39, prosecuted economic and major criminal cases at the U.S. attorney’s office before joining the law firm Kobre Kim as a partner. He also ran twice unsuccessfully for the Florida Legislature. A native Spanish speaker, Couriel graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. Couriel was considered a front runner but lost ground after Trump’s advisers learned he voted for Bush in the GOP presidential primary and predicted Democrat Hillary Clinton would win his Republican district by “quite a bit.”

▪  Jon Sale, 73, is a former federal prosecutor in New York and Miami who co-chairs the Broad and Cassel law firm’s white-collar defense and compliance practice. He is also a close friend of Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani. Sale, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and NYU Law School, was also an assistant special prosecutor for the Justice Department in the Watergate case that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Sale, widely respected by colleagues and judges, could emerge as Trump’s pick.

▪  Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz, 37, is a state representative from Miami and land-use attorney with the law firm Akerman LLP. A graduate of the University of Miami and Columbia Law School, Diaz came to know the president personally after appearing as a contestant on Trump’s TV show, “The Apprentice,” in 2006. Diaz, despite his association with Trump, is not seen as a strong contender for the post.

▪  Frank Ledee, 53, is a veteran prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office who has most recently served as chief of the gang-prosecution and gun-violence units. He’s also the office’s liaison to the U.S. attorney’s office. Last year, Ledee was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the South Broward Hospital District Board. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Barry University and law degree from Nova Southeastern University. Ledee is considered a long shot for the job.

▪  Aronberg, 46, is the Palm Beach County state attorney. He had surfaced as an alternative selection until his recent decision to withdraw. A Democrat, Aronberg declined to prosecute Trump’s former presidential campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for battery in April. Aronberg is also a former state senator. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

On Wednesday, he issued a statement: “I'm honored that my name was mentioned, but I withdrew from consideration. I am committed to the important work being done in our community and eager to continue my service in Palm Beach County.”

Before the president selects a nominee for U.S. attorney in Miami, the FBI would do a background check. After the nomination, the process of confirming in the Senate would take months. The nominee would eventually succeed Acting U.S. Attorney Ben Greenberg, who in March automatically replaced Wifredo Ferrer, a Democrat who joined the Holland and Knight law firm.

Ferrer, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate the following year, made fighting fraud, corruption and terrorism the top priorities in his 250-lawyer office that stretches from Key West to Fort Pierce.

The district — plagued by Medicare fraud and identity-theft crimes — is recognized as one of the busiest in the nation for sheer volume of cases, along with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In addition, Ferrer forged close ties with law enforcement and community groups in South Florida in an effort to prevent crime and promote education.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and David Ovalle contributed to this report.