Posted: March 4, 2011
THE ONCE AND PRESENT PROSECUTOR
By Celia Cohen
Charlie Oberly flipped through nine pages of guidelines explaining what a U.S. attorney should say and not say to the press.
"You just don't go off willy-nilly talking. I appreciate there are more legitimate restraints on you than when you are the attorney general," he said.
Oberly has gone where only one Delawarean has gone before. He is the second ever to be elected as the state attorney general and appointed as the U.S. attorney, posts that are sort of fraternal twins as chief legal officers go. Close but not identical.
Oberly ran the Attorney General's Office as a three-term Democrat from 1983 to 1995 and took over the federal Justice Department's outpost here late last year as President Obama's appointee. The only other double officeholder was the late Laird Stabler Jr., who was the Republican attorney general from 1971 to 1975 and the U.S. attorney, appointed by President Ford, from 1975 to 1977.
"It's like coming home in many respects," Oberly said.
Maybe it should be called "home" with an extreme makeover and a new landlord. The attorney general serves at the pleasure of the people, the U.S. attorney at the pleasure of the president.
"As attorney general, pretty much you run your own show. You don't get any resources in how you should be attorney general. Here, there is so much more. The U.S. attorney is a member of the executive branch. You have to ask before you do anything. I'm slowly learning that," Oberly said.
Once upon a time, it was a lesson that might have escaped Oberly. When he was elected attorney general at 36, he had a style that was, to put it charitably, freewheeling.
Oberly was an accomplished prosecutor but not so polished otherwise, and his most famous gaffe was a political one, withholding part of the filing fee for his 1986 re-election campaign because of a feud with the Democratic Party. It took a sympathetic ruling from a judge to restore him to the ballot.
Those days and that demeanor are long gone now. At 64, Oberly no longer has to prove himself.
"I'm not running for office. This is not a steppingstone. Nor is it a capstone. I can't see myself ever wanting to retire," he said.
Oberly's new assignment is strikingly different in scale. The U.S. attorney is in charge of about 40 people, the attorney general roughly 10 times as many.
Ditto for the caseload. In the state office it is more of an assembly line, a lot of street crime and speeding tickets and so forth, while the federal office has a smaller caseload, more complicated and time-consuming, some of it taking months to develop.
The crime-fighting partners -- the local forces of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives -- are smaller, too.
"They're nowhere near as big as the Newark Police Department," Oberly said.
Beau Biden, the Democratic attorney general, can appreciate Oberly's transition from the viewpoint of someone who did it in reverse, going from a onetime assistant U.S. attorney in the Philadelphia office to his election as attorney general in 2006.
"I think there's an advantage to having a broad perspective. Charlie, as much as anyone in the state, has that. Most of the difference has to do with volume. You have to make an adjustment both ways," Biden said.
In between the two offices, Oberly took a 15-year turn as a defense attorney.
He got used to people asking him how he could make the switch. He managed it because he could choose his clients, and he tended to accept a certain type.
"I had good people who did dumb or bad things," Oberly said.
Not always, though. Oberly's most notorious client was Tom Capano, the charming, well-connected and wealthy lawyer who was a confidant to governors and mayors, all of it a veneer for a conniving killer. Capano romanced and murdered Anne Marie Fahey, the scheduler for Tom Carper when the Democratic senator was the governor, and dumped her body at sea.
"It was the most haunting case I ever dealt with -- somebody I knew, somebody I considered to be a close friend -- to see the fall of a human being like that," Oberly said.
Oberly has not seen Capano for nine years but still finds him coming to mind four or five times a week, every week. Capano was sentenced to life in prison.
"Proportionally he has less square feet than my kids' hamsters have in their cage. He'll never sit down in the Charcoal Pit. He'll never drive a car. He'll never sit on the beach," Oberly said.
As for Oberly, he has arrived where he started, a prosecutor granted his most memorable representation ever. The United States of America.