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U.S. Attorney Litman to depart April 27

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ever since President Bush was elected, top federal prosecutors across the country who had been appointed by Bill Clinton have known they'd have to find other work.

U.S. Attorney Harry Litman, 42, a Democrat raised in Shadyside, describes himself as a bit "pointy-headed." He'll be leaving his office on the sixth floor of the Federal Courthouse at the end of the month. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

U.S. Attorney Harry Litman said he held off looking until yesterday, when he sent a letter to the White House announcing his resignation as of April 27.

"I knew this job was dangerous when I took it. When the wheel turns, you leave," he said. "You're not really notified that you should. You just sort of know."

It's considered bad form to stick around.

Litman, 42, the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh since 1998 and a former deputy assistant attorney general under Janet Reno, said he hasn't yet made up his mind what he will do, although he said others have approached him about positions.

Regarded as bookish and considerably more camera-shy than some of his predecessors, he might go into private practice with a law firm, take a job as counsel for a local organization or devote his time to teaching, a pursuit he has enjoyed at the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University and the University of Pittsburgh.

"I haven't decided yet," he said. "I'm considering a number of options in the private, public and academic areas. I hope to stay in Pittsburgh."

In the immediate future, he plans to write an article for the London Review of Books on Operation Target, the anti-gun initiative in Western Pennsylvania modeled after similar programs in Boston and other cities. It's been one of Litman's pet projects, credited by Pittsburgh police with reducing shootings in the city.

Although some federal agents consider Litman a nondescript leader who wasn't around long enough to make much of an impact, his studious reputation has earned him respect among attorneys and leaves many doors open.

"His legacy, I believe, is one of a brilliant lawyer," said U.S. District Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith. "He brought a measure of scholarship to the U.S. attorney's office that in my view is extraordinary."

Litman, a Democrat raised in Shadyside, describes himself as a bit "pointy-headed." He's a slightly-built, low-key type who'd rather grab a sandwich at the Subway shop near the courthouse and pore through legal files than power-lunch with politicians or crow about an indictment on TV.

A graduate of Harvard with a law degree from Berkeley, Litman was a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Anthony Kennedy. After joining the U.S. Department of Justice in 1990, he advised Janet Reno on prosecutorial policy and constitutional law.

He was also part of a team that examined candidates for federal judgeships, including four judges on the bench in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh: Donetta Ambrose, Gary Lancaster, Sean McLaughlin and Robert Cindrich.

"I think he's looking at a lot more options than the rest us have available to us," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Leon Rodriguez, who is leaving the office May 1. "He's a talented individual."

Many who leave the $130,000-a-year top post in the U.S. attorney's office make the jump to criminal defense work in search of bigger money.

Former U.S. attorneys J. Alan Johnson and Fred Thiemann, for example, switched sides. Top assistants do it, too. Tom Farrell, the prosecutor who nailed former Rep. Frank Gigliotti in a bribery scheme, now defends the kind of criminals he used to try to put behind bars. Rodriguez will also join the defense in Washington, D.C., earning at least three times his $125,000 government salary.

Aside from the lure of money, Litman recognizes the noble reasons prosecutors often give for jumping the fence, such as a desire to "put the system through its paces" and ensure the American ideal that everyone charged with a crime has a vigorous defense.

But Litman might have a harder time making that leap than others because of his background at the Justice Department.

He's been a prosecutor most of his career, starting in the Northern District of California. In the Eastern District of Virginia, he was co-counsel for Operation Underhand, which resulted in the convictions of 60 people who smuggled drugs into Lorton Prison under the guise of providing religious counseling. Litman also worked on the civil rights case against the four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King, making sure the prosecution didn't make mistakes that could be used as grounds for an appeal.

"I wanted to be a prosecutor from the start," he said. "It just seemed to be a job where you get to do the right thing. We're here to just call it straight. You can certainly call me a pro-law enforcement Democrat. "

Litman, who's single and lives Downtown, said he's pleased to have made some progress in three areas on which he wanted to focus: gun trafficking, healthcare fraud and computer crimes.

"Harry has been approachable and he has done a great deal to enhance working relations between the FBI and the office of the U.S. attorney," said Jack Shea, special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh FBI office. "He has high professional standards."

Litman's fourth goal was to get the staff to work harder. When he first arrived, he said, the office was "maybe a little sleepy." It still is, by most accounts, but the criminal caseload has been increasing from about 250 cases a year in the mid-1990s to about 290 now.

Judging the productivity of a prosecutor's office based on numbers isn't quite fair, because some cases are more complex than others. In Miami or San Diego, for example, prosecutors handle many more cases, but they tend to involve simple offenses such as immigration violations. Pittsburgh, Litman says, has a higher percentage of fraud and white-collar crime cases that take more time to develop.

Still, he acknowledges that some members of the 43-person staff aren't exactly burning the midnight oil. What's needed, he said, is some more new blood.

"Hopefully," he said, "we'll get a gang of young turks in here."

Their new boss, who must be nominated by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate, will likely be one of these candidates: Assistant U.S. Attorneys Robert Cessar and Mary Beth Buchanan, former U.S. Attorney Tom Corbett, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Rush and Pittsburgh attorney Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon.

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