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Crime & Courts

New U.S. attorney brings wide background, work ethic to job

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Published:   |   Updated: July 21, 2013 at 02:38 PM

TAMPA - By all outward appearances, Lee Bentley couldn't be any more different than former U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill.

O'Neill, 5-foot-8, is a New York native, a quick talker, gregarious with a ready, explosive laugh - the quintessential northeasterner.

Bentley, 6-foot-4, is from Alabama, with a slow southern drawl and a more nuanced sense of humor - the archetypal southern gentleman.

But as Bentley steps in to become the acting U.S. attorney - taking over for O'Neill, who stepped down to work in the private sector - don't expect any noticeable changes in the federal prosecutor's office. Bentley said he plans to continue what O'Neill started.

When the two met about 25 years ago working in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, O'Neill said, he used to call Bentley "Jimmy Stewart."

"I wasn't used to that type of person," O'Neill said.

But the two men became good friends, and when O'Neill became U.S attorney, he asked Bentley to be his chief deputy, serving as both the first assistant and chief of the criminal division.

"I could not have done anything without him," O'Neill said. "We were really close."

Bentley cites O'Neill as an important influence, calling him "one of the best U.S. attorneys in the country."

O'Neill, he said, was willing to roll up his sleeves and do the same work he required of everyone else in the office.

Both O'Neill and Bentley cite each other's work ethic.

Bentley said O'Neill routinely worked 16-plus-hour days. "He never stopped."

"If I have half as much energy as Bobby had in this job, I'll be doing well."

O'Neill said Bentley works much longer hours than he did. It's "not even close," he said. "I do like work. He gets into the weeds and he will work long, long hours. That's just what he does."

Another former U.S. attorney, Brian Albritton, also asked Bentley to serve as his first assistant, even though he didn't know him personally when he took the helm in 2008. Albritton said Bentley's reputation as a smart, vigorous prosecutor was the reason he chose to rely on Bentley in that position.

"The way he exercised judgment, prosecutorial judgment and helped run the office, I'm just indebted to him for the great job that he did," said Albritton, who called Bentley "absolutely brilliant."

As Bentley serves in the job temporarily, the search has begun for a replacement for O'Neill. The Florida Federal Judicial Nominating Commission is accepting applications for that post and four federal judgeships that are open in the state.

Asked if he will apply for the job, Bentley said, "I've been encouraged by a number of people to apply and I'm strongly considering it."

Bentley was raised in Montgomery, Ala., and went to college at the University of Georgia and then law school at the University of Virginia.

Bentley said he grew up watching "Perry Mason" reruns. "Ironically, I became Hamilton Burger," he laughed, referring to the district attorney who was Mason's nemesis.

After law school, Bentley served as a law clerk for appellate court Judge Clement Haynsworth and then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1984 and 1985, an assignment Bentley said was "a tremendous experience."

Bentley says Powell, a swing justice who adhered to precedent, stressed the real-world implications of the court's decisions. "He wanted to respect the rights of criminal defendants, but he also didn't want to do anything that would hamper law enforcement unnecessarily," Bentley said. "I feel like some of the justices today are not as pragmatic."

Powell, he said, was a significant influence on his development as a lawyer. "I'm not ideological," Bentley said. "I try to look at everything I do from a pragmatic perspective."

After his Supreme Court clerkship, Bentley went to work at the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, where his immediate supervisor was Samuel Alito, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, appointed in 2006 by President George W. Bush.

Bentley said Alito was "a great boss" and "a wonderful man."

Bentley said when he was clerking for Powell and working in the office of legal counsel, he gravitated toward cases that involved questions involving criminal law.

"I've always thought it was the most interesting area of the law," he said. "I think the lot of it is the drama. I feel like what law enforcement does for the community is so important. I've always been pro law enforcement, and I've also always thought it was very important that people get a fair trial.

"I think the tension between the two is what drew me to criminal law and I still think that's fascinating. Those are the type of issues we deal with here every day."

Bentley worked in the office for about two years before taking a job in 1987 as an assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, then the busiest federal prosecutors' office in the country. He found himself prosecuting drug suspects during the days of the cocaine cowboys.

"I started in the office on a Monday and I was picking a jury within the first week I was there," he said. "I had never even seen a criminal trial before. There was so much work to do, they needed people to jump into court immediately."

The defendant in the case was arrested in the Florida Straits on a sailboat with a hidden compartment that contained hundreds of pounds of marijuana. The sailboat had a broken mast and was dead in the water. The Coast Guard boarded and found the marijuana.

The boat was registered to someone else, and the defendant told a story about being hired by a rich guy to sail the boat to the Bahamas. He said he'd dropped the client off and was sailing the boat back. He had no idea there was marijuana in the boat, he said, and he'd been set up.

Bentley said he hadn't been involved in the case before the trial started and learned the agents hadn't investigated very much. The defendant told a good story and had a priest as a character witness. By the time the trial ended, Bentley said, he was having doubts about whether the guy should have been charged at all.

The jury deadlocked, and Bentley consulted with his supervisor and let the defendant plead guilty to a reduced charge. The defendant got a light sentence.

"He came over to me after the sentence and said, 'Mr. Bentley, I want to thank you for letting me enter into this plea. That's the last load of dope I'm bringing in from the Bahamas.'

"I guess I knew it before, but it made me appreciate even more that as prosecutors we're not able to determine with 100 percent accuracy whether a person is guilty or not," Bentley said. "I felt like it was a great learning experience."

Bentley eventually left the Miami federal prosecutors' office and went to work for Hogan and Hartson, a large law firm in Washington, D.C., where he became partner and met the woman who became his wife, Weatherly, another partner in the firm. They have two children, George, 14, and Kate, 8, and live in South Tampa.

Bentley did well in private civil litigation but missed criminal law. "It wasn't nearly as interesting," he said. And he didn't feel as fulfilled as he felt as a prosecutor. After 10 years, he decided to take a job in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa in 2000. He said he took about a 70 percent pay cut.

Bentley said he loves Tampa. "I love the size of the city. It's big enough that there's a lot of interesting work." The residents of the city have been friendly and welcoming, he said.

He's active in his son's Boy Scout troop and went backpacking with the scouts in New Mexico for two weeks before stepping in to his new job.

His friend, Steve Routh in Washington, D.C., said Bentley is a strong family man, something he never would have expected when just about every single woman in Washington wanted to be set up with Bentley. Routh said Bentley and his wife are "a perfect match."

Routh described his friend as a "calm, deep thinker."

Bentley's friends say he is smart not only about prosecuting cases but also knows when charges should not be brought.

Bentley said he takes the responsibilities and powers of the office seriously.

"We can't deal with every societal problem," he said. "All we can do is enforce the statutes that are there. ... There are limits on what we can do to help society, but on the other hand, we have awesome powers. The more I'm in this job, the more I realize we have to be careful how we wield that power."

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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