Court Nominee Accused of Plagiarism Won't Withdraw

By Carrie Johnson and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A nominee for a federal judgeship who has been accused of plagiarism said yesterday that he will not withdraw his nomination because he fully disclosed the controversy to both White House officials and the FBI during interviews for the job.

Michael E. O'Neill, a former Senate aide nominated by the Bush White House to a seat on the U.S. District Court, said he acknowledged that he had inadvertently lifted material from another writer in a law review article.

"It wasn't intentional. It was my fault. It was my mistake, and I have to own up to it," O'Neill said in an interview.

His former boss and main patron, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), said yesterday he still supports O'Neill for the job after the New York Times reported on his writings late last week.

"I think on the merits, Michael O'Neill ought to be confirmed," he said. "You have a mistake which ought not negate an extraordinary record of public service."

The senator said O'Neill provided details throughout the nomination process. "The FBI went into it, the White House counsel Fred Fielding and I talked about it, then I'm told it went directly to the president," Specter said.

The White House nominated O'Neill in mid-June to a slot on the federal district court in Washington, one of the nation's most prestigious benches. Now a George Mason University law professor, he also worked as Specter's top aide, helping win confirmation of two Republican Supreme Court justices, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The White House yesterday declined to comment on internal deliberations concerning O'Neill's nomination. "We conduct a very thorough background investigation on all of our prospective nominees, which would serve to capture issues such as this one," spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.

She said O'Neill was "completely forthcoming" about incidents in which he copied quotes and analysis from another scholar, and said lawmakers who worked alongside him in the Senate had attested to his "character and abilities."

O'Neill said mistakes were made when he wrote reviews and notes in a single computer file, then was not as careful as he should have been during the writing process. "I have always used a big old file of articles I was working on," he said. "I cut and paste information" into it.

"I lost track of stuff, and I just had catastrophic results," he added.

For years, the graduate of Brigham Young University and Yale Law School has moved easily among Washington circles. O'Neill served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and to David B. Sentelle, now chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. O'Neill also shaped criminal justice policy as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1999 to 2005.

Working with Specter on Capitol Hill, he helped draft complex bankruptcy and asbestos legislation, winning plaudits from a bipartisan group of senators when he left to return to teaching in 2007.

Erica Chabot, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the Judiciary Committee chairman, declined to comment on the nomination yesterday.

For his part, O'Neill pointed to good relations he had fostered with lawmakers during two years in the Senate. "I am a creature of the Senate," he said. "If you believe this was inadvertent, and it was fairly insignificant, is it something to kill somebody's career for?"

Two Senate staff members said questions about O'Neill's use of other published work had circulated for the past year or so. However, Specter and other top committee aides had been pushing the White House to nominate him, despite the allegations, they said.

O'Neill surrendered his tenure at George Mason after a university investigation concluded he had used material from another author, without attribution, in a law review piece published shortly before he achieved the coveted academic status, according to Daniel D. Polsby, dean of the law school. O'Neill remains at the school as an associate professor. The article at issue was later withdrawn from the Supreme Court Economic Review, an incident first reported by the Times.

Polsby said that the school took the allegations "very seriously," and that the case followed a routine policy on scientific misconduct that was in place at the time.

O'Neill's bid has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. The Judiciary Committee is awaiting his rating by the American Bar Association, which assesses the qualifications of judicial candidates.

Senate Democrats and Republicans have clashed for months over a handful of judicial nominees to appeals courts. It is unclear whether the plagiarism allegations will hurt O'Neill's bid on a crowded Senate agenda, with limited time remaining before the August recess, a congressional aide said.

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