September 7, 2008 / 7:33 AM / 11 years ago

Prosecutor becomes figure in mortgage mess

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Thomas O’Brien, the U.S. Attorney for California’s Central District, is emerging as a likely prosecutor in criminal cases expected from the U.S. mortgage meltdown.

Thomas O'Brien, the U.S. Attorney for California's Central District, is photographed at his office in Los Angeles August 28, 2008. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

In the past, he has faced gang members in court and since becoming U.S. Attorney in October 2007, he has shown he is willing to bring aggressive and sometimes even creative charges.

His office is already looking into New Century Financial Corp and IndyMac Bancorp Inc, according to securities filings by those two mortgage lenders. Countrywide Financial Corp, based in Calabasas, California, is also on his patch.

Executives charged with wrongdoing would face a straight shooter who is developing a reputation for being tough on white collar crime, according said Brian Sun, a former federal prosecutor who is now a trial lawyer with international law firm Jones Day.

If O’Brien brings cases to trial, it would mark the first time California’s Central District has prosecuted a major financial fraud case since the 1980s savings and loan crisis.

“Is he ambitious? Of course he is,” said Brian O’Neill, another former federal prosecutor who is also an attorney at Jones Day. “People don’t get there unless they are ambitious.”

A former radar intercept officer on board U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcat fighters, O’Brien, 49, worked in the Hardcore Gang Division for Los Angeles County, bringing dozens of gang murder cases, according to his Department of Justice biography.

“He is a a lawyer who thinks like a lawyer and a little like a cop,” said O’Neill.

Seeking justice for victims of the worst banking debacle in a generation could help the telegenic O’Brien, a Republican, launch a political career or at least keep his post under a new U.S. administration.

He made a splash this year by allowing a case to go ahead against a Missouri woman accused of creating a fake online profile to harass a 13-year-old girl who then committed suicide.

In that case, and in a fraud indictment against Broadcom Corp founder Henry Nicholas III, defense attorneys said O’Brien overreached his powers.

His team suffered a high-profile loss last month when a jury acquitted a former Marine charged with killing Iraqi detainees in Fallujah, the first time a civilian jury had decided whether a soldier violated military law in combat.

“Oftentimes when we charge something we are the first in the nation to have done so,” O’Brien told Reuters in an interview in August. “Somebody’s got to lead the way.”

In June, O’Brien closed out a 9-year-old case against class action law firm Milberg Weiss, now called Milberg, with prison sentences for the main defendants, and won convictions in another lingering case against detective-to-the-stars Anthony Pellicano and lawyer Terry Christensen.

“I think in certain situations we could be a lot more surgical in our approach to the investigation and the prosecution,” O’Brien said. Prosecutors should move to indict on fewer charges as soon as they had evidence to support them, he said.

One of his most controversial moves since becoming U.S. Attorney was to disband a public corruption unit, which prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, to ask whether he had acted under political pressure from the White House or Justice Department.

Meanwhile, his effort to boost productivity to get more funding drew complaints of quotas from prosecutors in his office.

In an interview, O’Brien would not say whether his office is investigating the mortgage issues, but said his district — the country’s biggest in terms of population — encompassed a number of potential targets from the financial sector.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of the home mortgage industry covers 21 companies, FBI Director Robert Mueller has said.

Reporting by Gina Keating; Editing by Eddie Evans

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