Defense lawyers may want to think twice before taking on Thomas H. Bienert, the new head of the U. S. attorney’s office in Santa Ana.
In his eight years as an assistant U. S. attorney, Bienert has amassed an almost-perfect record, winning all of his 18 appeals before the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where few federal prosecutors have fared so well.
And no defense attorney ever bested him in the 20 criminal trials he personally prosecuted. Nineteen ended in convictions and the 20th case ended in a mistrial.
Bienert’s record is one of the reasons why U. S. Atty. Nora Manella, who heads the seven-county Central District from an office in Los Angeles, tapped him to become the top Justice Department official in Orange County.
But Bienert has had little time to celebrate his promotion. Since he accepted the post in April, his office has become engaged in two high-profile cases, obtaining criminal indictments against former Ram cornerback Darryl Henley, for allegedly plotting to kill a federal judge, and two doctors from the now-defunct UC Irvine fertility clinic on insurance fraud charges.
It has also filed a criminal complaint against an Irvine woman accused of running an international baby-selling operation out of her home, and evading income taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars in her bank accounts.
Many colleagues and defense attorneys say they believe the 35-year-old Bienert will excel in his new job.
Roger Cossack, a top criminal defense attorney and current co-host of CNN’s “Burden of Proof,” calls Bienert “one terrific trial lawyer, one tough adversary, and perhaps the most ethical and honest prosecutor I’ve ever met. He’s going to do well because his heart belongs to the prosecution.”
In an interview, Bienert said his main goal is to expand the Santa Ana office to the point where it can handle all of the federal criminal cases coming out of Orange County, an area dubbed by law enforcement officials as the “fraud capital of the United States.”
Bienert is already lobbying his bosses to increase his staff of 13 prosecutors. Manella says she may be able to honor his request when her office’s hiring freeze is lifted.
Bienert is taking over from Jean A. Kawahara, who decided to work part time after returning from maternity leave this year.
Manella said she picked Bienert as Kawahara’s successor because “I needed someone whose judgment I can trust. Tom is not the high-handed or dictatorial sort. He’s not a good old boy, and he has an incredible can-do attitude.”
For Bienert, heading the Orange County office has been a kind of homecoming.
Bienert was born in Laguna Beach when his father was a Marine lieutenant at Camp Pendleton. The family later moved to New Orleans where Bienert went on to attend a Jesuit high school. Bienert said his mother’s work as a legal secretary encouraged him at an early age to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Louisiana State University, Bienert enrolled in law school at Tulane University where he earned a coveted place on the school’s law publication, and won several national awards in moot court competitions.
“There wasn’t any doubt that Tom was going to be one of our class leaders,” said Rebecca Becker, a law school classmate who now clerks for a judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court. “Tom was spectacular in oral argument. He can also take some of the most complicated factual scenarios and make it understandable for anyone.”
Bienert joined the U. S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles in 1987. Five years later, he became head of the department that processed most criminal filings, a clear sign that he was one of the office’s rising stars.
But Bienert resigned a year later, taking a job at a small Santa Monica law firm specializing in entertainment and employment litigation.
His foray into private practice was short-lived. A year later, he was back at his old job as a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
“I missed the trial work and the fast pace of a criminal practice,” Bienert says. “With civil cases, it took a long time to see conclusion of a case, and I do my best work under pressure. I had to get back.”
Since then, Bienert has successfully prosecuted bank robbers, drug kingpins and white-collar criminals.
His most prominent case came against six Los Angeles County narcotics officers charged with beating drug dealers with flashlights and fists, stealing cocaine that was used to plant on suspects, and skimming cash and valuables from drug dealers.
The case ended in a mistrial, and it was not retried, but Bienert’s searing cross-examination of key witnesses earned him the respect of top criminal lawyers in Southern California.
David Wiechert, who represented one of the indicted officers, said one of Bienert’s best attributes is “his great sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“He’s not afraid to exercise his discretion to mete out justice,” says Wiechert, a former federal prosecutor who now represents former Orange County Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron in his fraud case. “He knows how to indict a case. He will not overcharge a defendant. I don’t think you can get a fairer shake.”
H. Dean Steward, who heads the federal public defender’s office here, agrees that “Bienert cares about doing the right thing.”
Since taking office, Bienert has worked to ensure that some indigent defendants are represented--by public defenders--even before they are indicted, something the federal public defender’s office here has long advocated.
“The guy is very easy to talk to,” Steward says. “He will listen to what we as defense lawyers have to say. He makes his own decisions, but he would take the time to hear your side of the story.”
Says Cossack: “He is not a guy who’s going to get a great deal of pleasure by throwing people in jail. He doesn’t go home and put a notch on his gun. In other words, he’s not on a power trip.”
But at least one defense attorney says Bienert can be overzealous in some situations.
Allan Stokke, who is presenting Dr. Sergio Stone, one of the two doctors indicted for insurance fraud in the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal, says Bienert was “misguided” in appealing a federal magistrate’s decision to release Stone on $3-million bail.
After U. S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor raised Stone’s bail, Bienert asked Taylor to remove Stokke and his partner, James Riddet, from the case because they had once represented Stone’s co-defendant, Dr. Jose Balmaceda.
Taylor granted the request, and the defense attorneys are now appealing to the 9th Circuit.
“I don’t think it was proper to deny Dr. Stone the lawyer of his choice,” Stokke said.
Bienert’s decision to first “investigate the egg-stealing in the fertility clinic, not find anything wrong, [and] then file hyper-technical insurance fraud charges is also not fair,” Stokke added.
Federal prosecutors in Santa Ana say they’re happy to have Bienert as their new boss.
Linda Oprian, who has been working as a federal prosecutor here for the last two years, said Bienert is never too busy to discuss trial strategy with his colleagues.
“He’s a great person to talk to and to bounce ideas off,” Oprian says. “He breaks away from whatever he’s doing to help you craft the appropriate arguments.”
Bienert says that’s only part of his new job. Despite his new administrative duties, he says he still plans on trying cases.
“The biggest thrill I get is standing up in a courtroom before a jury of 12 people and saying, ‘I’m here to represent the United States of America. . . .’ ”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Profile: Thomas H. Bienert Jr.
New job: Chief, Santa Ana branch, U.S. attorney’s office
Hometown: Laguna Beach
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English, Louisiana State University, 1983; law degree, cum laude, Tulane University, 1986
Record as a federal prosecutor: 37 wins, one mistrial
Major prosecutions: Operation Big Spender, a money-skimming scandal targeting 33 former Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies; organized Los Angeles Riot Task Force that filed criminal complaint against attackers of trucker Reginald O. Denny (those charges were eventually dismissed after state charges were filed); one of prosecutors in cases against Drs. Jose Balmaceda and Sergio Stone of now-defunct UC Irvine fertility clinic
Prosecutorial philosophy: “It has never been the sentiment of this office that our main goal is just to lock people up. We are here to prosecute wrongdoers, but the good prosecutor keeps evaluating a case to make sure that the individual defendant has been dealt with fairly. We have to perpetuate that tradition.”
Source: Thomas H. Bienert Jr.; Researched by DAVAN MAHARAJ / Los Angeles Times