Brett Tolman resigning as U.S. attorney

Date: 2009-10-15
Source: sltrib.com

He's resigning Dec. 31 to go into private practice advising corporations, litigating cases.

By Pamela Manson

From prosecuting an international adoption scam to cracking down on mortgage fraud, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman has packed the past three years with headline-grabbing cases -- not all of their outcomes popular with critics.

Criticisms from the state's attorney general have been painfully public. Prosecutions connected to the Bureau of Land Management have been fraught with political controversy.

But as he reflected Wednesday on his decision to resign Dec. 31 to go into private practice, Tolman pointed to his efforts to protect children and American Indian heritage, to target fraud, and to stem the illegal use of prescription drugs as his legacy.

He insists that although it's "a very political time," no one ever pressured him on how to handle a case.

"You set politics aside and you look at the facts and the law," Tolman said. "You get away from violent crime and people think it's political, but it's not."

The decision to resign in advance of his term expiring next summer was his own rather than a request from President Barack Obama, Tolman said. Key to Tolman's timing was his recent role in leading Elizabeth Smart through harrowing testimony about her abduction and rape, and a personal desire to see her alleged kidnapper brought to justice.

Any trial wouldn't begin until after his departure, but Tolman said a hearing on whether Mitchell is mentally competent, which is expected to end in December, is the most
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important part of the case.

"It's the highest priority I have personally," said Tolman, whose sister was kidnapped and raped when she was in college. "I want to see that through to the end."

Ed Smart, father of Elizabeth Smart, said Wednesday Tolman had done "a superb job" on the case.

Tolman's departure leaves the Smart case and a raft of other major prosecutions for his successor to finish. Three prominent prosecutions have involved federal land issues: Tim DeChristopher's monkey-wrenching of an oil and gas lease sale, a 2½-year undercover investigation into illegal American Indian artifact trafficking, and a protest ride up the Paria River in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a route closed to motorized traffic since 2000.

DeChristopher bid on and won 14 lease parcels for $1.8 million at the Dec. 19 sale with no intention of paying, and a judge is now considering whether he can claim at trial on two felony counts that he was using civil disobedience to stop an illegal auction.

A DeChristopher's attorney, Pat Shea, said a change of prosecutors could end what Shea sees as untoward pressure from the oil and gas industry to punish his client.

"I certainly hope the new U.S. attorney will take the time to review the record to date and perhaps explore some alternatives which wouldn't have Tim facing jail time," Shea said. "[Tolman's] marching orders have not been in harmony with where I think the fair administration of justice would lead."

The protest ride case under review by Tolman's office involves Kane County Commissioner Mark Habbeshaw and Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who in May exhorted hundreds in Jeeps and all-terrain vehicles to ride up the Paria River corridor.

Tolman said Wednesday he's comfortable leaving those cases to his successor.

"All of these cases are well on their way and good people are working on them," he said.

Other controversial cases are two that have produced plea bargains and probation sentences, which critics say were too lenient.

Blanding residents Jeanne Redd and daughter Jericca were charged with 10 felonies between them in the artifacts prosecution, but received probation from a judge after striking a plea deal. Tolman's office had asked for prison time. In the case of Wellsville agency Focus on Children and its workers, accused of tricking parents in Samoa into placing their children for adoption, plea deals resulted in probation sentences and prompted anger from parents and advocates.

Tolman said he felt the cases still had a deterring effect and pointed to agreements in the adoption case that included paying into a fund to help the children stay in touch with their birth families.

During his tenure, Tolman has piggybacked federal prosecutions in connection with several state criminal cases. Earlier this year, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's home complaining about Tolman.

Shurtleff on Wednesday acknowledged that the two prosecutors got off to a rocky start and "there were some difficulties working together on a number of issues." But Shurtleff said they've worked through their differences, particularly with the creation of a strike force designed to track down undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes.

And Tolman said while the agencies hit a few rough patches, he was "really encouraged by where we're at now."

Tolman said he plans to enter private practice advising corporations on the law, litigating cases and doing a little lobbying on legislation. He has recused himself from handling any cases of firms that have approached him about a possible job.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who joined with other Republicans in Utah's delegation to ask Obama to keep Tolman in his spot, heralded Tolman for serving with "distinction and honor, as law enforcement officers praised Tolman's style.

Tim Furhman, special agent in charge of the FBI's Salt Lake City Office, praised Tolman's "collaborative style" and said his experience gave him a unique perspective.

Tolman came to his position when President George W. Bush nominated him to be U.S. attorney after a standoff between key Republican senators and the White House, which was backing Kyle Sampson, a native Utahn and Justice Department chief of staff. He replaced Paul Warner, who is now a federal magistrate in Salt Lake City.

His goals have always been to move quickly on cases, Tolman said.

"You do wish day in and day out that you had more resources to work more cases and protect more victims," he said.

Tolman said he looks forward to continuing to live in Utah.

"I love Utah. I love the lifestyle we have here and the people."

Tribune reporters Patty Henetz, Robert Gehrke, and Thomas Burr contributed to this report.

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