The White House is vetting David Barlow, who is currently the legal counsel to U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, to possibly be the next U.S. attorney for Utah, and Utah Democrats aren't happy about it. The office, a presidential appointment, has been vacant for 18 months.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said Friday that he recently recommended Barlow to the White House and the Obama administration currently is in the process of doing the requisite background investigation.
"He's a very highly qualified attorney, and he knows Utah and that's very important," Hatch said in an interview.
Lee said he has a policy of not commenting on potential nominees for such jobs.
But Democrats are not pleased that the White House is considering the legal counsel to Lee, a prominent tea party figure, for Utah's top federal law enforcement spot.
"I think it's a travesty," said Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. "There is a phenomenally talented bunch of Democratic attorneys in the state of Utah. To have to make that kind of political compromise is just ridiculous."
Taylor said the state party has recommended more than a half-dozen qualified candidates and, to his knowledge, none had heard any response from the White House. "It's an insult," Taylor said.
Previously, the Obama administration had vetted and apparently abandoned another Hatch-recommended prospect, Scott Burns, a Republican who was the deputy director of the White House office of drug control policy under President George W. Bush.
And the White House earlier had vetted and jettisoned David Schwendiman a Democrat and long-time prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office who has also prosecuted war crimes in Bosnia for undisclosed reasons.
Utah has not had a permanent, Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorney since Brett Tolman, a Bush appointee, stepped down in December 2009 to join a Salt Lake City law firm. Carlie Christensen has been serving as acting U.S. Attorney since then.
Tolman and his predecessor, Paul Warner, were recommended by Hatch, a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee. The state's senior senator also had backed previous U.S. attorneys David Jordan and Brent Ward. All four prosecutors were Republicans. Scott Matheson, who served as U.S. Attorney from 1993-97, is the only Democrat to have held the office in a generation. He is now a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge.
"This is a perfectly ridiculous situation to be in nearly three years into [Obama's] term," said Taylor.
Before joining Lee's staff, Barlow was a partner in the Chicago office of Sidley Austin LLP, handling complex class-action litigation and product liability cases. Lee formerly worked at Sidley Austin's Washington office.
Michael Davis, head of the products liability division, practiced alongside Barlow for a decade and spoke highly of his former colleague.
"David is brilliant," said Davis. "Not only is he very gifted intellectually, but he's very personable and he's a very good listener and shows great respect to everyone, whatever his or her position."
Davis said that, if Barlow is confirmed, he would be an "exemplary" U.S. attorney.
"The people in Utah, indeed the people across the country, will be very proud of what David is able to do. He's exceptionally gifted, he's exceptionally conscientious and he has a high sense of duty."
Barlow graduated in 1995 from Brigham Young University, where he was a Truman Scholar, and earned his law degree from Yale University in 1998. He was made a partner at Sidley Austin in 2006.
Barlow defended pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca in lawsuits over drug claims, General Electric in a series of asbestos claims and Johnson & Johnson.
He has not been a prosecutor and does not appear to have handled criminal cases in his career.
Barlow left Sidley Austin after Lee was elected in 2010, a move that Davis said Barlow felt like he had to make.
"Out of a sense of duty to Senator Lee and his country, he felt that this was something he really needed to do," said Davis.
Barlow and his wife and children live in Highland.