Washington • President Barack Obama tapped Sen. Mike Lee's legal counsel to be the next U.S. attorney for Utah, a move that infuriated Democrats from the state and ended a lengthy political drama over who would claim the high-profile position.
The White House on Tuesday announced the nomination of David Barlow. He will need to win Senate confirmation before he can claim the spot as Utah's top federal prosecutor, a job that has remained vacant since the end of 2009.
"I am pleased to nominate David Barlow to serve the people of Utah as a United States attorney," Obama said in a statement.
Barlow has worked as Lee's top legal counsel since shortly after the freshman GOP senator won his 2010 election. Before that, Barlow was a partner in the Chicago office of Sidley and Austin, where he spent 10 years working on class-action suits involving pharmaceutical companies.
That is the same office where Michelle Obama worked as an associate and where in the early 1990s she met Barack Obama, who worked there as a summer associate.
Lee also worked for Sidley and Austin in Washington.
Utah Democrats blasted Barlow's background and expressed confusion over why the president would pick a Republican when qualified Democratic lawyers expressed interest.
"We are very disappointed in the decision," said Todd Taylor, the executive director of the Utah Democratic Party. "What's the deal? Is there something in his background that we don't understand or is there some sort of deal that was cut between the Obama administration and our senators? And what are they giving up for this? There are a lot of fine-print details on this that don't make any sense."
Taylor criticized Barlow for having no experience handling criminal cases and little recent experience in the state.
"We don't see how the people of Utah are served by this guy," he said.
Lee denied that he or Sen. Orrin Hatch struck any deal with the Obama administration, and he defended Barlow as a "well-credentialed lawyer."
"I am very happy that the Obama administration chose to appoint him," Lee said. "David is a first-rate lawyer who will serve the people of Utah with distinction."
Hatch noted the unusually long 18-month search for a U.S. attorney nominee but said the president made the right call in the end.
"I applaud the federal prosecutors in Utah who have continued their hard work during the search for a U.S. attorney who can be confirmed," he said. "David Barlow is a brilliant attorney with solid Utah values and sound judgment."
Hatch nominated Barlow for the spot, which was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune early last month. And Barlow didn't forget to thank him.
"I am grateful for the confidence of President Obama in nominating me to be United States attorney, and for the support of Sens. Hatch and Lee," Barlow said.
He was not the first, or even the fifth person the White House considered for the post.
Normally the president receives suggestions for such nominations from the highest-ranking member of Congress from the president's party in each state. In Utah, that would be Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who originally backed David Schwendiman, a long-time prosecutor in Utah's U.S. attorney's office who recently returned from prosecuting war crimes in Bosnia.
The White House spent a year vetting Schwendiman, a Democrat, and then ultimately rejected him for reasons that remain undisclosed.
Matheson tried again, forwarding a list of Democratic lawyers to the White House, including Salt Lake City attorney Brent Baker, who flew to Washington for a series of interviews in September 2010. He pulled his name out of consideration four months later, saying he had no faith that he could be appointed in a timely manner.
Matheson declined to comment on Barlow's appointment.
The White House also briefly considered Scott Burns, a Republican who was the deputy director of the White House office of drug control policy under President George W. Bush.
Like Barlow, Burns was recommended by Hatch.
Both Hatch and Lee are on the Judiciary Committee and will shepherd Barlow's nomination through the confirmation process, which could take months.
In the meantime, Carlie Christensen will continue serving as acting U.S. attorney, a spot she has held since Brett Tolman resigned in December 2009. Tolman was the last U.S. attorney for Utah to win Senate confirmation.
Tolman was recommended for the post by Hatch, as was his predecessor, Paul Warner.
The last Democrat to hold the position was Scott Matheson, who served during President Bill Clinton's administration from 1993 to 1997. A brother of Rep. Jim Matheson, he is now a judge on 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Barlow graduated from Brigham Young University in 1995 and Yale Law School three years later. He lives with his family in Highland.