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Probe Leader Called A Tough Prosecutor

John H. Durham is a federal prosecutor in Connecticut.
John H. Durham is a federal prosecutor in Connecticut. (Bob Child - AP)
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By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008

John H. Durham, who was appointed yesterday to lead a criminal probe into the destruction of the CIA's interrogation tapes, oversaw corruption charges against a Republican governor in Connecticut, put away FBI agents in Boston and prosecuted many of New England's Mafia bosses.

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Former colleagues said the deputy U.S. attorney is known for seeking maximum sentences, shunning plea bargains and avoiding the spotlight. Four friends said they could not recall him losing a case in more than 30 years as a prosecutor, almost all of it spent fighting organized crime and gang violence in Connecticut.

Two former prosecutors and a Justice Department official said that Durham, 57, was recommended for his assignment by his former boss, Kevin J. O'Connor, who was the U.S. attorney in Connecticut until he became an assistant to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales shortly before Gonzales resigned last year. O'Connor is awaiting confirmation as an associate attorney general.

Durham, a career prosecutor and registered Republican, has served as the No. 2 to four U.S. attorneys in Connecticut -- two Democrats and two Republicans. Friends describe him as nonpartisan and driven by a strong sense of morality that paid off in cases against violent criminals. He met President Bush in 2005, when Bush visited Connecticut for a fundraiser, said Tom Carson of the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut.

Several courtroom adversaries compared Durham, a Roman Catholic reared in the Northeast, to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the staid U.S. attorney in Chicago who served as special prosecutor in the investigation of the leaked identity of a CIA officer. "He's Fitzgerald with a sense of humor," said Hugh O'Keefe, a Connecticut criminal defense lawyer who has known Durham for 20 years.

But Durham has had little experience with national security issues and with cases involving executive authority that appear to be less than black-and-white. His probe may require calling lawyers and aides to Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the CIA before a grand jury to testify about their knowledge of the tapes' destruction.

"John is a dedicated prosecutor who sees things in absolute terms," said H. James Pickerstein, a former chief assistant U.S. attorney who hired Durham in the Connecticut office in the 1980s before he retired to become a defense lawyer. Pickerstein said Durham relied on a "good versus evil" vision of the world while overseeing the probe of former governor John G. Rowland.

Rowland was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and four months of home confinement for accepting $107,000 in gifts from people doing business with the state and for not paying taxes on them. "It wasn't an easy case, but John was single-minded in his pursuit of the truth," Pickerstein said.

Stanley A. Twardy, another former U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said the politics of the CIA probe will not sway Durham. "The complex nature of this case won't be lost on John," Twardy said. "He will pick up on the nuances and the public, at the end of the day, will have a full picture of what went on."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.


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