Southland Man to Be Customs Nominee


President Bush intends to nominate former federal judge Robert C. Bonner to head the U.S. Customs Service, White House officials said Wednesday.

Bonner has headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and is a former U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, which includes Los Angeles and six other Southern California counties.

Since leaving public service in 1993, Bonner has been a high-profile defense lawyer with a broad array of clients, from Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss to the city of Thousand Oaks in a controversy over a huge sewage spill.

Bonner, 59, referred calls Wednesday to the White House, where spokesman Ken Lisaius confirmed the proposed nomination. Lisaius said the former judge will undergo an FBI background check.

If no problems are found, Bonner's nomination will be forwarded to the Senate, which will hold confirmation hearings and vote to approve or reject him.

With an annual budget of about $2 billion, the Customs Service, in addition to its core mission of inspecting cargo and interdicting illegal drugs, shares responsibility for combating international money laundering and arms smuggling.

"By temperament and experience, Rob is ideal for the position. He is a person of great integrity and unimpeachable ethics," said Jan L. Handzlik, a Los Angeles defense lawyer who coprosecuted cases with Bonner when the two worked in the U.S. attorney's office in the early 1970s. Later, they worked together as defense lawyers on several cases.

Handzlik, who chairs the American Bar Assn.'s national White Collar Crime Committee, said Bonner is adept at striking a balance between being "very conservative" and very aggressive when fighting crime and respecting the rights of the individual.

If Bonner--a Republican--is confirmed, it will be his second trip to Washington to head a major federal law enforcement agency.

Bonner Headed DEA in the Early 1990s

In 1990, then-President George Bush tapped Bonner to head the DEA. Bonner had been a Bush-appointed U.S. district judge in Los Angeles for a year prior to that, and was the top prosecutor in Southern California from 1984 to 1989.

Bonner took over the DEA during a time of public squabbling among the agency, the FBI and Customs Service. In addition, the DEA was embroiled in a controversy over its investigation into the torture-murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena, which strained relationships with Mexico.

As Bonner left the DEA in 1993, he assailed the incoming Clinton administration for recommending that the agency be merged into the FBI instead of remaining independent under the Treasury Department. The merger was nixed by then-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Bonner also was critical of the administration for proposing anti-drug policies that he called "doomed to failure" for emphasizing treatment for hard-core drug users.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, Bonner received his law degree from Georgetown Law School in 1966. He spent 1975 to 1984 in private practice, specializing in complex business litigation.

He has been active in Republican politics, most recently serving as co-chairman for California Lawyers for Bush-Cheney.

Earlier this year, Bonner applied for the newly created job of independent monitor overseeing reforms in the Los Angeles Police Department. That job went to Kroll Associates, with its president Michael G. Cherkasky, a former New York county prosecutor, serving as the primary monitor.

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