SAN FRANCISCO -- From an expansive corner office on the 11th floor of the federal building here, Melinda Haag finally is in charge as the Bay Area's top federal law enforcement official. And it is clear there is a new and different kind of sheriff in town.
Just a few weeks into her job as the region's new U.S. attorney, the energetic, 49-year-old lawyer with the blue-chip resume has been making the rounds, sizing up the state of her office, meeting with judges and officials from federal agencies, and basically educating herself on a position for which she's seemingly been groomed for years.
Haag, the Obama administration's nominee, replaces Joe Russoniello, one of the last Republican holdovers from the Bush administration. And the differences are likely to be stark, both from a policy standpoint, where Haag is expected to emphasize more white collar, environmental and civil rights prosecutions, and as a simple matter of demographics -- she is the first woman in 90 years to hold the post in Northern California, and is two decades younger than her Republican predecessor.
And she will now be chiefly responsible for everything from supervising the perjury prosecution of home run king Barry Bonds to protecting Silicon Valley's technology secrets.
"She brings a fresh, young perspective," said Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor and Hastings College of the Law professor. "She'll try things, she'll be an innovator at various levels."
Haag inherits an office with a checkered past and a history of chewing up the reputations of some of her predecessors. In fact, Russoniello was brought back to clean up what was widely viewed as the disastrous tenure of former San Francisco U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, fired by the Bush White House for mismanagement.
During an interview last week, Haag indicated that she does not believe she is inheriting a similar reclamation project, saying that "things are going pretty well." And she is particularly cautious about discussing any potential changes in an office that prosecutes federal crimes from Monterey to the Oregon border.
"I haven't been inside the office for seven years," Haag said. "Before I do anything, I need to have a better understanding of the specifics of the office."
Former San Francisco U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller III, now the FBI director, recruited Haag to the San Francisco office in 1999. She served as chief of the white-collar division and also ramped up local environmental and civil rights prosecutions. She had previously been a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and in private practice.
Among other cases, she successfully prosecuted two prison guards at Pelican Bay State Prison for civil rights violations against inmates. Haag also developed the then-emerging area of child pornography prosecutions.
"What Melinda is really good at is tackling subject matter that is more complex," said David Shapiro, former chief of the criminal division and later interim U.S. attorney while Haag worked in the office.
Working for a major law firm, she in recent years has represented a host of top executives in trouble, such as Lisa Berry, a former valley general counsel implicated in the stock options backdating scandal.
But once President Barack Obama was elected, Haag, with her legal credentials and political connections, was immediately the presumed favorite to become U.S. attorney. Lawyers and judges who know Haag describe her as tenacious but able to reach compromises and work with others.
Federal public defender Barry Portman predicts she'll be more receptive to dialogue with the defense bar than Russoniello. Former colleagues also say she's likely to scrap some of Russoniello's more hard-line policies in plea bargaining and bail, and that she may be less inclined to ramp up office statistics with drug, weapons and immigration cases. Prosecutions were largely up the past few years under Russoniello, but that was primarily in those law enforcement areas.
"I don't think she'll give up doing guns and drugs," said Martha Boersch, another top former San Francisco federal prosecutor. "But I think she'll be more balanced in how she sets priorities."
Local lawyers also expect Haag to take a hard look at the highest-profile cases in the office, and while she said she does not want to "undo" existing work, she plans to get briefings on the blockbuster prosecutions. That is likely to include the Bonds case, scheduled for a March trial.
"I'd imagine that's one of them," she said.
Meanwhile, Haag, the married mother of two children, insisted she is not fretting about whether her tenure may be short-lived if the president is not re-elected.
"I can't worry about it," she said. "I'll be here as long as I'm here. I certainly want to make every day count. I'm not here to coast."
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.
in Northern California
2003: 982 defendants
2004: 953 defendants
2005: 1,052 defendants
2006: 1,007 defendants
2007*: 861 defendants
2008**: 1,046 defendants
2009: 1,323 defendants
2010 (projected): 1,093 defendants
*Former U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan fired
**Joe Russoniello becomes U.S. attorney
Source: Transactional Records Access
Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
Major areas of prosecution
Immigration: 374 defendants
Drugs: 190 defendants
White collar: 107 defendants
Weapons: 91 defendants