NEW YORK — The new, top federal prosecutor in Manhattan is a Republican, a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and was reportedly interviewed personally by President Donald Trump before getting the job.
But people who know Geoffrey Berman say he will keep politics out of a prosecutor’s office that has long prided itself on independence from Washington.
“He’s not about politics. He’s about doing the right thing and the law,” said Mary Jo White, who led the office from 1993 to 2002 and was later chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Democratic President Barack Obama.
Berman, 58, was appointed Jan. 3 as the interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a post that gives him oversight of more than 220 federal prosecutors who often take the lead battling wrongdoing on Wall Street and international terrorism. He had served in the office once before as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1990 to 1994.
For now, his status in the job is unsettled. The president hasn’t formally submitted his name to the Senate for confirmation for the permanent position. Partisans are on high alert for even a whiff of anything politically suspicious for the leader of an office whose territory includes Trump Tower in Manhattan.
At least one Democrat, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has threatened to block any nomination because of reports that the Republican president personally interviewed Berman and other U.S. attorney candidates last year.
“Reports that President Trump took the unusual step of personally interviewing Berman are deeply disturbing considering the conflicts of interest inherent by his potential jurisdiction on matters that could affect the president personally,” her office said in a statement. “If this meeting took place it is disqualifying.”
Prior to his inauguration Trump also had met with his predecessor, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who thought he’d won assurances he’d be kept in the job only to be swept aside in a purge of all prosecutors appointed by Obama, a Democrat.
Several former prosecutors who worked with Berman said he had an apolitical nature.
White said she remembered him as “one of the stars” of the office and someone who would always “stay on the high road and try to do the right thing and be very independent.”
Lorin Reisner, who was chief of the criminal division under Bharara and is now in private practice, said Berman “really cares about the history and the heritage of the office,” long nicknamed the “Sovereign District of New York” for its independence from Washington.
“Knowing Geoff the way I know Geoff, I have no question about this independence and his commitment to carry out his responsibilities apolitically and completely on the merits,” he said.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Berman studied at the University of Pennsylvania and got his law degree at Stanford before becoming a clerk to Judge Leonard I Garth in the 3rd U.S. District Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
From 1987 to 1990 he worked for the independent counsel who investigated the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair.
William Treanor, Dean of Georgetown Law School and the associate counsel for the Iran-Contra probe, said he was impressed by the rare Republican working on the investigation.
“Geoff is very low key. He doesn’t take himself too seriously but he takes his work seriously,” Treanor said. “He’s not a: ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ type of person.”
Treanor said Berman was “somebody very committed to getting the law right and deciding on questions of what’s legal and illegal in a fair and apolitical way.”
Berman left the U.S. attorney’s office in 1994 after winning guilty pleas from a group of hackers who became known as the Masters of Deception. The prosecution led one publication, “2600: The Hacker Quarterly” to feature a cover picture that included a rag doll named “BERMAN,” a dagger in his chest.
Since leaving the prosecutor’s office, Berman has worked at Greenberg Traurig, the same firm that employs Giuliani, the former Republican mayor of New York City who advised Trump during his presidential campaign.
Berman declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
Colleagues say Berman won’t be a peacock in a prosecutor’s office that has had more than its share of big personalities and media darlings during the last few decades, including Giuliani, Bharara and ex-FBI head James Comey.
“He’s not what you would call flamboyant,” said Bob Fiske, another former Manhattan U.S. attorney. “But I think he’ll be a good leader.”
Berman’s approach to his work also wins praise from Rich Appel, who was sworn in as an assistant U.S. attorney the same day as Berman only to give up law three years later to write for “The Simpsons” TV show.
Appel, whose extensive TV credits include executive producer on “Family Guy,” identifies himself as a progressive Democrat and doubts he’d often vote the same as Berman. But he called him a great choice for the job.
“Here’s someone who was completely in charge. There’s like seven left arms and nine right arms in an investigation and you have to keep track of them all, and Geoff did,” Appel said. “One of the only times I recall him leaving the office early was to go to a mixer. And I think it was the mixer where he met his wife. Wasn’t a lot of wasted time. Even with that, he was efficient.”
Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.