Appointment Gets Bonner ‘Back Into the Action’


Robert C. Bonner, nominated Friday by President Bush to head the Drug Enforcement Administration, was described by friends as a man who has been a competent, independent and outspoken U.S. attorney and--for 11 months--U.S. District judge in Los Angeles.

“His experience as U.S. attorney will be very valuable as head of the DEA,” U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said. “As U.S. attorney, he was coordinating the drug effort in a major drug area. He is a skilled leader, with a lot of integrity. All those things are needed.”

But there also was an undercurrent of concern among defense attorneys and others because of what they suggest is a lack of commitment or interest in civil liberties by Bonner, 48.

The nomination came as a surprise to many attorneys and to some members of the federal judiciary. One federal judge, who asked that his name not be used, said that he could not understand Bonner’s decision to take the DEA job because of his long effort to win appointment as a federal judge.


“He’s a bland, placid, pleasant enough fellow, probably decent enough,” the judge said, “but this move is unseemly. It’s too ambitious, too quick. I’m disappointed that he would leave the bench so fast.”

Wilson said that, while he was surprised by the appointment, “when the President calls, if you are a dedicated public servant, you answer the call.”

Jan L. Handzlik, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, who has been a friend of Bonner’s for nearly 20 years, said: “Rob has found his position constraining, at times dull, in comparision to the U.S. attorney’s job. A federal judge can only react to specific cases. The head of DEA can make things happen on an international scale. This move gets Rob back into the action on a much larger playing field.”

Stephen Miller, an attorney, said that he saw no reason to criticize Bonner for moving to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“He’s going where he is most needed,” Miller said. “Perhaps, given his prosecuting experience, he is needed now in that position. I think both positions are important but what’s paramount now is the needs of the country.” Miller called Bonner “a superb choice.”

Bonner, a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center, has had four tours of duty in the U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles--as a law clerk to senior federal judge Albert Lee Stephens Jr.; as an assistant in the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office; then, after nine years of private practice, as U.S. attorney and, finally, as a federal judge.

Formal and often aloof from his staff as U.S. attorney, Bonner earned a reputation as an exceedingly hard worker and knowledgeable director of federal prosecutions. While most U.S. attorneys would not have involved themselves in prosecutions, Bonner personally directed the eight-month case against FBI agent Richard W. Miller, who was accused of espionage. There was a hung jury in the first Miller trial, and his conviction in a second trial was overturned by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A third trial is pending.

As U.S. attorney here, Bonner more than tripled the manpower assigned in the office to narcotics cases. Thursday night, at a dinner of the American Jewish Committee, he spoke on the drug problem but said nothing about the impending appointment.


“I was just thinking last night that he was going to move on,” said John C. Argue, an attorney who attended the dinner. “I think he’s growing as an individual all the time.”

But Victor Sherman, a defense attorney in some drug cases, called Bonner’s appointment “shocking,” explaining: “He’s a rock-nosed prosecutor. . . . He will take a hard-line position and not understand the problem.”

Staff writer Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.