DEA eyes valley U.S. attorney for top spot

WASHINGTON -- The Central Valley's chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, is one of the leading candidates to run the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to law enforcement sources.

A one-time Shasta County district attorney, Scott has earned high marks from the Bush administration for his past five years of service in the sprawling Eastern District of California. Officials previously had offered Scott a federal judgeship in Sacramento, a lifetime position he turned down.

Now, Justice Department officials are closely considering the 45-year-old career prosecutor for a political appointment that's global in scope and temporary in time.

"His reputation is that he's a straight shooter," said former federal prosecutor Rory Little, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, where Scott attended law school. "He's right down the line, and people think he's done a pretty good job there."

Scott declined to comment on the DEA position. His name, though, is a topic of conversation on Capitol Hill and in law enforcement circles.

Scott is not the only front-runner for the top job at the $2.4 billion-a-year agency. The acting administrator, longtime DEA special agent Michele Leonhart, has her supporters. Leonhart has California experience from her prior service in the San Francisco and Los Angeles field offices.

The DEA, like the FBI, is part of the Justice Department. Unlike the FBI director, who by law is appointed to a 10-year term, DEA administrators typically rotate with each president. This can deter potential candidates in the last year or two of a presidential administration.

Even short-term service, though, can jazz up a résumé. The previous administrator, Karen Tandy, resigned to take a job as senior vice president with Motorola.

Scott oversees 72 federal attorneys, as well as support staff, who handle civil and criminal cases from the Eastern District's Sacramento and Fresno offices. The district covers 34 California counties, stretching from Bakersfield in the south to the Oregon border. It does not include the Bay Area and coastal regions.

"I think he's been a very good U.S. attorney," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said. "He understands the need for strong federal and local collaboration to fight the epidemic of drugs and violence on our streets."

Still, administering the DEA would be a big jump for him.

With 11,000 employees, the agency is nearly twice as large as it was when Scott graduated from law school in 1989. Its agents work in 227 offices in the United States and in 62 foreign countries, including a growing presence in opium-rich Afghanistan.

"The job description is very different," said Gerald Caplan, a former Justice Department official and now a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. "The DEA is a large bureaucracy with investigators all over the world, working in a context of political sensitivity."

At the same time, Little added that "it's not that uncommon" for U.S. attorneys to be tapped for bigger jobs, especially during the end of an administration. Former Los Angeles-based U.S. Attorney Robert Bonner, for instance, was appointed DEA chief by the first President Bush and went on to serve through part of the Clinton administration.

The job requires confirmation by a Senate that's narrowly controlled by Democrats. Scott has testified before Congress and worked on national-level Justice Department committees on topics such as methamphetamine control. He is not generally seen as an overtly partisan Republican, although his prosecutorial emphasis on issues such as child pornography has tracked White House priorities.

"He's been a good soldier," Caplan said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.