A federal prosecutor in Memphis once said that a United States attorney has "more power than a good man ought to want or a bad man ought to have."
Well, the job of U.S. attorney for Western Tennessee is open now that Terry Harris has resigned to be vice president of customer security for FedEx Express. And the man or woman President Bush picks to replace him will have more direct influence on Memphis than the people Bush picks to fill the vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court. He or she will lead a staff of 37 attorneys in Jackson and Memphis and jump into the middle of the Tennessee Waltz.
So far, three names have emerged as possible replacements: David Kustoff, a Bush political ally, attorney, and former head of the Shelby County Republican Party; Larry Scroggs, an attorney with Burch Porter and Johnson and former Republican state representative; and Thomas Parker, an attorney with Baker Donelson and assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis from 1995 to 2004.
Should the chief U.S. attorney have experience as a prosecutor? And is a political background an asset or liability, particularly at this time? I put those questions to Bud Cummins, the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, and Jim Neal, former U.S. attorney in Nashville and a lawyer in private practice for 35 years. Neither man has a dog in this hunt, but both have tried cases in federal court in Memphis.
"Experience as a prosecutor is helpful," said Neal. "But is it necessary? No. The office today involves more administration than it used to. Back when I was U.S. attorney in the Sixties, offices were smaller. You had a one-volume manual, and now you have something like 10 volumes."
Neal wanted to personally prosecute high-profile cases such as the one against labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, so he designated an assistant to administer the office. He admits that would be harder to do now that there are new areas such as terrorism (see related story on page 11).
Neal, a Democrat who was close to the late Robert Kennedy but has never been a political candidate himself, is a little uneasy about prosecutors with primarily political backgrounds. "I think it could make the job harder," he said. "I would hate to see the day when being extremely active politically is a crucial ingredient. The U.S. attorneys in this country have enormous power to do wrong. Prosecution should absolutely be nonpolitical."
Cummins, who prosecuted former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith earlier this year, had more political than prosecutorial experience when he was appointed by Bush in 2000. He had been a candidate for Congress and chief counsel to a Republican governor but had also clerked for two federal judges and done some criminal defense work in private practice.
"I don't think prosecutorial experience is a necessary prerequisite," he said. "Most offices are already staffed with real talented prosecutors. What you bring may be management talents, communication skills, and people skills. A big part of what we do is deterrence, by going out and explaining to the public what we are doing and why."
Cummins said Bush and his attorney general are "absolutely intolerant of prosecutors engaging in political activity of any kind. If you can't leave politics at the door, you shouldn't come here or you won't last." In more than four years, Cummins said he has gotten only one call from a politician about a case, and he backed off after Cummins explained the facts. When he gets calls, "99 percent of the time those people have been told by the subject of the investigation an incomplete set of facts."
Federal prosecutors in Memphis have had strikingly different backgrounds. Harris was a veteran state prosecutor. Veronica Coleman worked in corporate law. Ed Bryant was an all-but-declared candidate for Congress when he took over for Hickman Ewing, who was a career prosecutor. Mike Cody was former head of the Shelby County Democratic Party and former President Jimmy Carter's state campaign manager.
As a reporter, I have known them all, plus many of the well-known people they prosecuted. I think it's the most important and powerful public office in Memphis.