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At least one lawyer who's battled Attanasio in court will vouch for the experience -- and the ability -- of the young prosecutor, a Stanford law grad whose father is an agent for several professional baseball players.
"You won't find many trial lawyers with the Justice Department any better than he is," says San Antonio attorney A.L. Herndon. "He'll go a long way. He's a real good-looking boy, and jurors believe him."
A federal jury in San Antonio certainly believed Attanasio when it convicted Herndon client Bustamante three years ago. Bustamante's wife, Rebecca, was also charged in that case for allegedly doing no work in return for the $280,000 she received from Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams for helping the law firm land delinquent-tax collection contracts with the city of San Antonio and a school district. Rebecca Bustamante -- who stood trial alongside her husband -- was acquitted of all charges.
Herndon rejects the notion that the Bustamantes' ethnicity had anything to do with their prosecution. "Attanasio and I had a terrible fight in the courtroom," the lawyer recalls. "I called him names -- we were scratching and clawing. But racism was not one of his hang-ups."
For his successful prosecution of Bustamante, Attanasio was rewarded with one of the Justice Department's highest internal honors. A former colleague also credits Attanasio with securing a conviction in the government's bribery case against the owner of Kentucky's Green River Coal Company last December.
"The government won the case because of his closing argument," says Scott Cox, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Kentucky who is now in private practice.
Cox says Attanasio is one of a select group of federal attorneys who travel around the country prosecuting corruption cases against public officials. Because the Justice Department wants those cases to be tried in a uniform manner, it always assigns someone from its Washington office to them.
"In these high-profile cases, [the Justice Department] likes to have one of their attorneys at least assisting the local U.S. attorney's office," says Cox. "They want to keep control over those types of cases. They don't ever want to be accused of coming after someone because they are a Republican or a Democrat, or because you're black or you're white. Don't accuse Mike Attanasio of having a grudge against these people. He doesn't know them from Muhammad Ali."
Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes also cautions against jumping to conclusions about the scope and motivation of the federal investigation. Holmes indicates that he has knowledge that it wasn't aimed solely at black and Hispanic councilmembers.
"If what [the government] is doing is picking on someone just because of their ethnicity, I think that's subject to questionable government process," says the district attorney. "But we don't know that. And to fan the flames without the facts is just going to make you look foolish when the facts come out -- if you're wrong."
"This investigation," Holmes adds without elaborating, "has been going on a long, long time.