Career prosecutor Thomas O'Brien appears to be on track to become Los Angeles' top federal prosecutor, an appointment which, along with a bunch of new hires in the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office, could result in more white collar criminal cases and a boon to that defense bar.

O'Brien, who has already begun the background check process, according to a source connected to the search process, would be in a key position to influence federal law enforcement efforts in the city, even if his appointment proves brief, coming in the closing years of the Bush Administration.

And while there is no official statement regarding his priorities, it seems clear that O'Brien will have more resources and autonomy than his predecessor, given the fallout from the Bush Administration's firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

The office will have nearly 30 new hires so far this year by next month, bringing the total headcount to nearly 240 attorneys. Under former U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang, who was known for her close ties to Washington, D.C., budget restraints hampered the office's ability to fill vacancies. According to members of the white-collar criminal defense bar, one result of the office's weakened bench has been a decline in the number of complex white-collar crime cases pursued.

"Everyone feels like the big cases have dried up in the office and no one is happy about it," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School and former prosecutor in the office. "The white-collar defense bar is wondering what they are going to do for a living." Of course, there are prominent exceptions.

The office has been pursuing investigations of stock option backdating by KB Home and other companies. It also is the focal point for the investigation into possible wrongdoing by Milberg Weiss & Bershad LLP, the prominent plaintiffs firm that specializes in corporate class action lawsuits.

Los Angeles is home to about 100 white collar criminal defense attorneys. O'Melveny & Myers LLP and Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP have white collar criminal defense practices, as do such boutiques as Beck De Corso Daly Kreindler & Harris LLP and Lightfoot Vandevelde Sadowsky Crouchley Rutherford & Levine LLP. In response to the dearth of federal criminal cases, several firms have diversified to include state court public corruption cases, SEC investigations and internal corporate investigations.

One lawyer said these diverse practices were not as common three years ago. "There is grumbling out there from some people saying 'I don't have much to do,'" said one white-collar criminal defense attorney. "We want (federal prosecutors) to bring lots of cases because we want to be busy."

O'Brien, the presumptive nominee for the U.S. Attorney position and current head of the office's criminal division, declined to be interviewed. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of San Diego School of Law. He has been a deputy district attorney in both San Diego and Los Angeles. He joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles in 2000, and has previously served as chief of the civil rights division.

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