WASHINGTON – When President Clinton took office, he fired all the U.S. attorneys who had served under his Republican predecessor except one: New Jersey U.S. Attorney Michael Chertoff (search). Chertoff had won support from a high-profile Democrat, then-Sen. Bill Bradley (search), who asked that he be kept on.
That's as good an example as any that as homeland security secretary, Chertoff would be able to work with members of both parties, his supporters say.
New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats, praised President Bush's nomination of the Elizabeth, N.J., native, with Corzine calling him "one of the most able people and public servants he has ever known." Lautenberg said Chertoff's anti-terrorism experience will serve the country well.
Scott Christie, the current U.S. attorney for New Jersey and a Bush appointee who once worked for Chertoff, said his former boss "works and develops consensus in what he does and politics takes a backseat to doing the right thing for him.
"This speaks to the fact that he's recognized by both parties as a consummate professional first," Christie said.
The son of a rabbi, Chertoff, 51, was tapped by New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato to be the Senate Republicans' chief counsel for the Clinton-era Whitewater (search) investigation. Chertoff also investigated the suicide of Vincent Foster (search), a Clinton aide and former law partner of Hillary Clinton, and other allegations against the Clintons.
Glenn Ivey, a former Democratic attorney on the Senate Whitewater Committee, said that if Chertoff is "as tough on terrorists as he was on the Democrats in the Whitewater investigation, the nation is in pretty good hands."
Ivey, now Prince George's County, Md., state's attorney, said that Chertoff is "not going to be Mr. Congeniality, but maybe that's what you need" to force 22 different agencies inside the Homeland Security Department to work smoothly together.
Chertoff headed the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003, where he played a central role in the nation's legal response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, before the president named him to a federal appeals court position in New Jersey.
Corzine praised Chertoff's work in 2000 as special counsel to New Jersey's Senate Judiciary Committee investigating allegations that former state Attorney General Peter Verniero, suppressed evidence of racial profiling by the state police.
Robert Mintz, who worked for Chertoff in New Jersey, and represented Verniero during the racial profiling hearings, called his former boss "tough, but scrupulously fair."
"While he was the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, he was one of the hardest-working members of the office, someone who was widely respected not just here, but across the country, for being a U.S. attorney who could lead the office effectively and who also was the best trial lawyer in the office," said Mintz, who chairs the white collar defense practice at the Newark, N.J., law firm of McCarter & English.
As New Jersey's U.S. attorney from 1990 to 1994, Chertoff oversaw high-profile prosecutions of Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, New York chief judge Sol Wachtler and the kidnappers and killers of Exxon executive Sidney Reso. Chertoff personally handled the stock fraud trial of Eddie Antar, founder of the failed Crazy Eddie discount electronics chain.
Chertoff graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and went on to clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan from 1979 to 1980. After spending a few years with a private law firm, Chertoff was hired by Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where he prosecuted mob and political corruption cases.
"Having already assumed a great deal of responsibility in the investigations of al-Qaida, Michael Chertoff has made clear his commitment to keeping America safe," Giuliani said. "From this base of experience, he'll be a superb Department of Homeland Security secretary and continue the development of this important department.
In 1986, as head of the prosecution in the "Mafia Commission" case, Chertoff won the conviction of top bosses of La Cosa Nostra on charges including murder, extortion and racketeering.
After leaving the U.S. Attorney's office in 1994, Chertoff took on several high-profile private clients, including the Columbia-HCA health care chain which paid hundreds of millions of dollars for Medicaid fraud.
In 2003, President Bush nominated him to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in Philadelphia. He has handled a number of routine reviews of immigration decisions and appeals of criminal convictions.