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Holder's rise rooted in Pa. courts

When Eric H. Holder Jr. first joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1976, he was fresh out of Columbia Law School, assigned to a public-integrity unit and sent to earn his stripes battling corruption.

Eric H. Holder Jr. is Obama's pick for attorney general.
Eric H. Holder Jr. is Obama's pick for attorney general.Read more

When Eric H. Holder Jr. first joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1976, he was fresh out of Columbia Law School, assigned to a public-integrity unit and sent to earn his stripes battling corruption.

So he came to Pennsylvania.

Here, he racked up high-profile convictions - including a Scranton-area mob capo and a bribe-taking Philadelphia judge. Despite making one error that earned him a stern critique from a federal judge, he quickly impressed savvy observers of the state's legal scene.

"You were very comfortable with him," said U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon, the longtime judge for whom Scranton's federal courthouse is named. "He was very deferential and very professional. I would have predicted a brilliant future for him."

Nealon would have been right.

The prosecutor who appeared before him 30 years ago to ask for wiretap warrants against the Bufalino crime family is poised to become the next U.S. attorney general, with confirmation hearings expected in January.

There, he is expected to get a hard questioning from another veteran Pennsylvania crime fighter, Sen. Arlen Specter, over Holder's involvement in President Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose case Holder reviewed. And just as Holder has his roots as a federal prosecutor handling Pennsylvania cases, he also knows what it is to face criticism from these parts.

In 1988, after successfully prosecuting Court of Common Pleas Judge Herbert R. Cain Jr. for taking bribes, Holder said the court system in Philadelphia "is filled [with corruption] to a degree that I've never seen in 11 years with the Justice Department."

Holder, who added that "the system stinks," was asked to apologize by the city's president judge for the pronouncement, though whether he ever did is unclear. He did not return a call seeking comment, and Edward J. Bradley, the now-retired president judge, does not recall how the situation turned out.

"I took exception to that very strenuously," Bradley said last week of Holder's 1988 assessment, "because it was not true, and it is not true."

Holder has been a Washington resident since 1976 and was never permanently assigned to Pennsylvania, although public-integrity cases frequently brought him through the region. He even had a hand in reviewing evidence in the Abscam case that saw members of Congress and Philadelphia City Council members convicted, though the case was taken to court by other prosecutors.

The men Holder's highest-profile Pennsylvania prosecutions sent to prison, Judge Cain and Bufalino capo James David Osticco, are now dead. Cain's attorney, Morris Baran, recalled that Holder was a nice, if tough, adversary. "I always thought he was a gentleman," Baran said.

The case files remain public records and offer some insight into Holder's tenacity as a prosecutor, particularly in using wiretap evidence. In an online resume, Holder still claims both cases as key achievements of his legal career because of their prominence at the time.

The Osticco case even remains relevant today because of a connection to Mount Airy Casino Resort owner Louis DeNaples, who is battling a perjury charge relating to his gaming license.

In 1977, DeNaples had a different court case going: He was one of four men accused of defrauding the federal government in the cleanup of 1972's Hurricane Agnes flooding. That case ended in a hung jury, and a holdout juror later said her then-husband had been bribed with $1,000, a pocket watch, and a new set of tires to persuade her not to vote guilty.

Holder came to Pennsylvania to investigate the jury-tampering, a case that ultimately involved three grand juries from 1979-82, tapped telephones, and a body wire worn by a federal informant. He won convictions against the woman - who pleaded guilty - her ex-husband Charles Cortese, and Osticco, whom a wiretapped conversation alleged was the de facto leader of the Bufalino family at the time.

However, the case also saw a serious misstep by the young Holder and other prosecutors working with him: Three of four charges against Cortese were tossed out by U.S. District Judge William W. Caldwell. Holder's team, Caldwell wrote, had improperly gotten an indictment based on things Cortese told a grand jury under condition of immunity.

Caldwell last week called that situation a "rare" error for any prosecutor, but he spoke highly of Holder.

"He was extremely professional and gentlemanly," Caldwell said, "and I would have nothing but good things to say."

In a written judgment filed at the time, the judge was more critical. "It is unfortunate that charges so serious must be dismissed on legal grounds rather than on merit," Caldwell wrote. "This result might have been avoided in several ways."

Caldwell offered several alternate paths Holder could have taken to bring the full charges, but later refused Holder's request to add them with a new indictment. The lesson would have to go toward the young prosecutor's future, not the case at hand - though he did win his convictions.

Five years later, Holder was back in Pennsylvania with another case involving wiretaps and judicial-system corruption. Flamboyant lawyer Barry Denker, after being caught bribing a parole agent, became an undercover informant to lead authorities to three corrupt judges.

Holder prosecuted the case against Cain, caught on tape taking a $1,500 payoff to dismiss a car-theft case, and the longtime judge went to prison. But in this case, too, Holder showed a perhaps undue aggressiveness. Denker claimed Cain had taken many payoffs to make rulings. Holder charged Cain with one of them, alleging the judge had taken a $100 bribe in another matter. The jury believed otherwise because there was no tape evidence to back up the crooked lawyer Denker's claim, the foreman told reporters.

Holder may have overreached in filing a second charge against Cain, but it did not immediately rein in his aggressiveness against perceived corruption in the Philadelphia judicial system.

The Cain conviction in February 1988 was the third in six months against a Philadelphia judge, and two more had pending criminal trials at the time. Twelve other judges were serving one-year suspensions for taking money from a roofers union.

Surveying the situation, Holder told reporters "the system stinks" with "pervasive corruption," the worst he'd encountered.

Bradley, the Common Pleas Court president judge in 1988, fired back within hours of Holder's criticism.

The prosecutor, Bradley said, was "just plain wrong" and attempting to "gain some easy publicity [and] play fast and loose with the otherwise unblemished reputations of over 100 judges."

A few months after criticizing the Philadelphia judiciary, Holder, too, would be a judge - a Reagan appointee to the Washington, D.C., Superior Court. He would leave that job for high Department of Justice positions under Clinton but went into private practice when Clinton left office.

If Clinton's pardon of Rich does not become a deal breaker, the prosecutor who cut his teeth on Pennsylvania corruption will head back to the Department of Justice next month for a third tour - this time, in charge.