Kaine Relative Eyed for U.S. Attorney Job

By Jerry Markon and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's brother-in-law is among the candidates for U.S. attorney in Alexandria, a key law enforcement job that is supposed to be free of political considerations, legal and political officials said yesterday.

Kaine (D) said he has discussed the position with Dwight C. Holton, an assistant U.S. attorney in Oregon and the brother of Kaine's wife, Anne Holton. Dwight Holton also is the son of former governor A. Linwood Holton Jr.

Kaine said he referred his brother-in-law to U.S. Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), whose office will help recommend candidates to the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama. At least five other current or former prosecutors are candidates for the job, officials said.

"All I have done with him is to say there is a process and that process involves getting hold of the senior senator," Kaine said. The governor added that Holton "is very qualified" and "has had some significant experience" in more than a decade as a federal prosecutor.

But Holton's interest in the job is raising concerns among some prosecutors and legal ethicists, who say appointing him would send the wrong message at a time when national attention is focused on corruption charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), a case brought by the U.S. attorney in Chicago. Although they don't question Holton's qualifications, the experts pointed out that the U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia -- who also oversees offices in Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News -- would lead any potential criminal investigations of state officials.

"There is sort of a feeling that you're putting the fox in charge of the henhouse here, and that's a questionable decision," said Mark Foster, an expert in legal ethics at the Zuckerman Spaeder law firm in the District. "If this guy is really a great prosecutor, there are a lot of places where he can go and work where he's not going to be running into his cousins every time he turns around."

Holton, 43, and a spokesman for Obama's transition team declined to comment. Kaine -- a vice presidential finalist who is close to Obama and whose wife, a former Richmond city judge, is a volunteer adviser to Obama's transition team -- said he saw no conflict. Holton, he said, could recuse himself from a politically sensitive investigation if one arose. Kaine will leave office in January 2010 because of Virginia's term limits law.

Andrew Weissmann, former director of the Justice Department's Enron Task Force, said recusal is common in such situations and pointed out that the entire U.S. attorney's office in Houston recused itself from cases stemming from the collapse of the energy trading company.

"This is a silly issue," said Weissmann, who worked with Holton in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn and said he is "scrupulous" about ethics.

Officials in Webb's office said Kaine has made no effort to lobby for Holton.

The U.S. attorney's job in Alexandria has been considered a law enforcement plum, but its visibility has grown as the post became central in the government's legal war on terrorism. In recent years, the office has overseen the prosecutions of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. courtroom in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; John Walker Lindh, a suburban Californian convicted of fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan; and a group of Muslim men convicted of training overseas for holy war against the United States.

With Obama vowing to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and try more terrorism suspects in federal courts, the $149,000 Alexandria job could grow even more influential in coming years.

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