Abramoff case gives Justice lawyers a rare high profile

A little-known but well-respected Justice Department trial lawyer is leading the government’s high-profile criminal investigation into disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

She is Mary K. Butler, one of 26 attorneys in the Public Integrity section and 94 U.S. attorneys around the country who investigate and prosecute cases of extortion, bribery, election crimes and criminal conflicts of interest.

Although there has been intense scrutiny of Abramoff and his associates, little is known about the career government attorneys investigating him. A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment, but lawyers who represent a witness in the Abramoff investigation or who have dealt with Justice helped flesh out how the section operates.

Butler practiced law in Chicago before joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida in 1987, where she prosecuted white-collar crime and public corruption. She was part of the independent counsel’s office, which investigated former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. She joined the Public Integrity section six years ago and has been considered for supervisory positions but apparently was not selected.

Butler reports to Noel Hillman, section chief, whom President Bush nominated to a federal judgeship last week. Hillman, an avid surfer and Bruce Springsteen fan, was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Jersey before coming to Washington.

He led the Campaign Finance Task Force, which investigated contributions made by foreign donors to the Democratic Party in the 1996 election, and investigated Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), who resigned from the Senate in 2002 because of allegations he accepted illegal campaign donations and gifts.

The section has had few high-profile cases, in part because independent counsels swiped some of the higher profile cases that, had it not existed, would have been investigated by Public Integrity.

Recently, Justice Department lawyers have uncovered corruption among Border Patrol guards in Arizona, Government Services Administration workers in Chicago and judges in New Orleans (where the FBI’s operation name was “Wrinkled Robe”).

But last month, two of Public Integrity’s top attorneys, Peter Zeidenberg and Dan Schwager, lost a verdict against David Rosen, a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Rosen faced two counts of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission over the costs of a Hollywood fundraiser in 2000.

In another closely watched case earlier this year, Hillman reached a deal with President Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who had taken copies of classified documents from the National Archives during two visits in 2003. Berger agreed to a $10,000 fine, and his national-security clearance was suspended for three years.

Lawyers who have defended clients charged with wrongdoing by the Public Integrity section said Justice lawyers were fair and able. But several questioned the decision to bring the Rosen case to trial, given that campaign-finance cases are hard to win.

Paul Sandler, Rosen’s attorney, said, “The prosecutors that I encountered during the investigation of the Rosen case and during the trial were professional, courteous, outstanding lawyers.” He added, “That has no bearing on my view of whether they should have instituted the criminal proceedings against my client.”

Lanny Breuer, who represented Berger, said the lawyers are “extremely fair, extremely professional, and very thorough. Hillman was attentive to making sure justice was done, and they were willing to roll up their sleeves and evaluate the work.”

Josh Berman, who worked with Hillman at Public Integrity before becoming a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, said, “He makes fair and reasonable decisions and he’s a terrific prosecutor.”

Besides Butler, the task force includes FBI agents, U.S. attorneys in Louisiana and other government agencies. In the early part of an investigation, FBI agents usually do most of the interviews with potential witnesses and write up reports that are evaluated by the prosecuting attorneys. As more evidence is gathered and an indictment is sought or won, more prosecutors are added to the case.

Some potential witnesses in the investigation have hired top-notch legal talent. Abramoff hired Abbe Lowell of Chadbourne & Park, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) chose Mark Tuohey of Vinson & Elkins, Michael Scanlon went to Stephen Braga of Baker Botts and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) hired Richard Cullen of McGuire Woods.