Detroit financial manager steps up from second fiddle

Thu Mar 14, 2013 5:52pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Kevyn Orr has many of the credentials needed to try to rescue Detroit from financial ruin, but in one key area he is untested.

Orr, appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder on Thursday as emergency manager for Detroit, is a partner at the law firm Jones Day. The big case of his career so far was to work on the rescue of Chrysler in 2009.

But in that case, Orr's role was secondary to lawyers higher up the food chain, which may have left him with an experience deficit as he takes on Detroit's troubles.

People who have worked with Orr, 54, describe him as thoughtful and a team player, with an inclusive approach to decision-making and a personality that naturally draws people to him.

As a graduate of the University of Michigan and as one of those who helped rescue Chrysler, one of Michigan's most prominent companies, he has strong ties to the state.

And, as a Democrat, an African-American and the head of the diversity task force at Jones Day, he filled some of the likely prerequisites for an emergency manager imposed on a predominantly black, heavily Democratic city by a white, Republican governor.

Of all his qualifications, the one singled out as most relevant is his work pushing through the sale of bankrupt Chrysler to Italian automaker Fiat.

In the early days of Chrysler's Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Orr meticulously drew testimony out of witnesses that would build the case for approving its sale and the closure of a quarter of its dealerships.

Throughout the case, he worked in the shadow of Corinne Ball, one of the stars of Jones Day's restructuring practice. Ball likely handled the sensitive issues of strategy and assigned specialized tasks to experts such as Orr.

Jones Day declined to comment on his role. Orr did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the past, Orr has downplayed the part he played. "My role as counsel to the company was focused on the legal doctrine, the law and the case law," he told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee afterward. "The political aspects I'll leave to another day and someone else."

The same could be said for his other big cases.

His bio page at Jones Day's website lists his work for H&R Block over false advertising claims, a deal by Yazmi to acquire the assets of WorldSpace, and the bankruptcy of Kaiser Aluminum. In each of these cases, a search of court records suggests he was a specialist, likely leaving strategy to bigger fish.

Indeed, several top bankruptcy attorneys in New York, the center of the restructuring world that Orr moves in, said they know little about Orr, who works in Washington.

DEALS WITH 'REAL TOUGH TRANSITIONS'

At Jones Day's Washington office he was seen as a mentor and leader and was known for his work recruiting and nurturing minorities and women in the legal profession.

"You can't not know Kevyn," said Ritu Cooper, a former Jones Day attorney who is now with Arent Fox in Washington.

Cooper said Orr always credited his drive to his family.

Orr was brought up in Florida by parents who were educators, both of whom earned doctorate degrees. His mother, Dorothy, was deputy superintendent of schools for Broward County, Florida. It was the highest position in the school system held by a member of any minority at the time, according to the Sun Sentinel newspaper. His father, Allen, was also an ordained minister.

Orr received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan, where he briefly met Snyder during a snowball fight. After law school, he became a litigation partner at Stearns Weaver Miller Weisller Alhadeff & Sitterson in Miami.

In the early 1990s he worked at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp and was the assistant general counsel for complex litigation at the Resolution Trust Corp, the government entity that liquidated failed saving-and-loans.

He joined the U.S. Trustee program, a unit of the Justice Department that oversees bankruptcies, in 1995, rising to the top spot in 2000.

The office took on an increased policing role at the time, and those who knew Orr there credited him with being the face of the program, testifying in Congress and speaking at legal industry events to win over attorneys who resisted change.

"He went around and got everyone to accept it and to work with it. He's accustomed to dealing with these real tough transitions," said Richardo Kilpatrick, president of Kilpatrick & Associates, a law firm in Detroit.

Knowing Orr's personality, Kilpatrick said he expects him to try consensus "before he moves to the stronger methods," such as forcing the city into bankruptcy.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Eddie Evans and Leslie Adler)

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