Thomas Puccio's reputation among his supporters in the Justice Department as one of the toughest federal prosecutors in the country convinced presidential advisers to recommend that President Reagan nominate him as the next U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, sources said yesterday.
Regardless of his reputation, the fact that he was drawn from outside the nation's capital has triggered strong criticism from stunned local law enforcement officials.
Critics contended that Puccio, the flamboyant and aggressive chief of the Justice Department's organized crime task force in Brooklyn and mastermind of the Abscam political corruption cases, will have little understanding of the unique law enforcement problems of the District.
"The guy's from Brooklyn . . . . He's not even a member of the D.C. Bar," said D.C. City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1), a lawyer and chairman of the council's judiciary committee.
Puccio's supporters, however, say he is the type of hard-driving, dynamic investigator that the administration wants to take control of what has long been considered one of the most prestigious U.S. attorney's offices in the country.
"He has the capacity to inspire his troops and the law enforcement agents who work closely with the U.S. attorney's office," said Irvin B. Nathan, a former deputy assistant attorney general who worked with Puccio on the Abscam cases. "Frankly, he deals better with the agents and his own subordinates than he does with his own superiors. He has his own sense of where he's heading . . . . He is very strong willed."
There is "some merit" in the argument that the federal prosecutor should be a local lawyer, Nathan said, but added "there's virtue in trying someone with a fresh look."
If, as expected, Puccio is nominated and confirmed by the Senate for the prosecutor's job, he would replace Charles F.C. Ruff, who was appointed to a four-year term by the Carter administration in 1979.
For the last five months, various lawyers were promoted in the White House and the Justice Department for Ruff's job, but sources said those lawyers were either too young (mid-30s) or not of sufficiently strong political persuasion (low-profile Republicans or registered independents).
Those objections could be understood in "traditional political terms," a former federal prosecutor said, but the selection of Puccio -- 36 and a registered independent -- contradicts them and has caused some resentment in local legal circles.
During the Abscam bribery cases, Puccio repeatedly ridiculed members of Congress, who had been ensnared by the FBI's Abscam undercover operation. In the operation, agents posed as rich Arab sheiks and offered money and gifts in exchange for political favors.
While the Abscam cases brought Puccio's courtroom dramatics to nationwide attention, he built his career as a federal prosecutor on investigations of major narcotics cases in the federal Eastern District of New York. In the now famous French Connection case, Puccio obtained tax evasion convictions against police officers suspected of taking confiscated heroin and putting it back in the market.
Lawyers yesterday said they didn't think that Puccio, whose work has focused on narcotics, organized crime and high level corruption, would find those kinds of cases in Washington. They added that Puccio has no experience in cases involving routine street crimes, which comprise the bulk of the work of the U.S. attorney's office here.