TAMPA - They laughed; they laughed harder; they got serious and then they laughed some more.
Bidding farewell to U.S. Attorney Robert - everybody knows him as Bobby - O'Neill, more than 250 of the city, county and state's top law enforcement officials, lawyers and others gathered Thursday to share stories, tell a lot of jokes and present him with a pile of plaques and gifts as mementos of his 25 years of service to the Middle District of Florida.
"He's always been the coolest guy in the room," observed O'Neill's top deputy, F. Lee Bentley, who will become acting U.S. Attorney when O'Neill leaves for good in two weeks to take a job in the private sector. "The day he walks out of this office is probably going to be the saddest day of my professional life."
More than a few commented O'Neill's signature mullet hairdo and styling blue shoes.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called O'Neill "one of my closest friends in the world," and presented him with a proclamation she said she couldn't read because attorneys general aren't supposed to cry.
"Everybody wants to be friends with Bobby O'Neill,'' said the city's top FBI agent, Kevin Eaton.
The wise cracks permeated the accolades as speaker after speaker took to the lectern to pay tribute to the personable New Yorker with strong Irish roots who never took himself too seriously.
Jim Skuthan of the federal public defender's office presented O'Neill with a doormat emblazoned with a warning he said he hoped O'Neill wouldn't need: "Come back with a warrant."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn kidded that O'Neill is "an embarrassment to the Irish people" for leaving just as the Irish were taking over the city. Buckhorn presented O'Neill with the biggest gift - a window from a door in the old federal courthouse with "U.S. Attorney" etched into the glass.
Between the jokes, affection and respect flowed.
"Bobby is committed to civil rights," said Tom Battles, regional director of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. "If Dr. King was here, I think he'd say, 'Mr. U.S. Attorney, you did your job well.'''
Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said that in spite of O'Neill's impressive legal background, he is "such a common, down-to-earth guy" who rolls up his sleeves to solve problems and get things done. "He's the simplest, complex person I've ever met in my entire life," she marveled. "There isn't anybody that can rock polka dot socks and blue shoes like you, Bobby."
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee told about O'Neill's enthusiasm for low profile cases that affected people's lives. "Bobby," he said, "You made a difference."
When it was his turn, O'Neill was ready. Quoting his role model, Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny," the grinning prosecutor said, "Everything that everybody just said is bull s---."
But then he got serious. "What everyone in this room does is so darn important," he said. O'Neill said the cooperation among different law enforcement agencies in this area is a model for others. "We have really become the way it should be done."
Noting that government employees have become public punching bags lately, O'Neill said that shouldn't take away from the importance of their work."What we do matters," he said. "He described a particularly brutal murder scene from several years ago, and said portions of society could easily degenerate into anarchy. "Law enforcement stands up to that," he said. "Law enforcement is a hell of a tough job."
"I would have loved to have played for the Yankees, but the reality is I stink," he said. Playing for his favorite team would have been great, he said. "Putting bad guys in jail comes really close to it."