By SUSAN SPENCER-WENDEL
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 04, 2008
WEST PALM BEACH — Two attorneys who say there are few distinct policy differences between them seek the seat of one of the chief law enforcement officers in the county, the state attorney, who leads more than 100 lawyers in prosecuting crimes.
Republican Joseph Tringali and heavily endorsed Democrat Michael McAuliffe will square off on Election Day Nov. 4.
Both men say the dramatic budget cuts recently hitting the Palm Beach County office will be a top priority for them - keeping the office stable, staffed and functioning. Over the past year and a half, legislators have cut the office's budget by about 14 percent, and some veteran lawyers have gone. Fewer and fewer lawyers have to handle more and more cases.
Tringali, 62, who has worked as an assistant attorney general for 17 years, says he knows well the stresses of being a government lawyer with his current salary of about $60,000 a year.
"I'm well-aware of the financial situation. I'm living it," he said.
A former mayor and councilman in North Palm Beach, Tringali said his political experience and work under former Attorney General Charlie Crist, now governor, will help open doors for him in Tallahassee. Tringali is also a neighbor of Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and says he knows him personally.
Tringali said he understands from practicing bankruptcy law that when there is no money, there is no money, but the contacts he knows may at least get him in the door to talk with legislators. Tallahassee would be his first stop if elected state attorney.
He has mulled using more volunteers in the office to handle cases, but he has done no specific research on various programs.
McAuliffe, 45, who is endorsed by State Attorney Barry Krischer, said if more of the budget is lost, the office will face a real operational crisis - not enough lawyers to staff courtrooms, for example. McAuliffe said he has looked specifically at programs on the west coast where volunteer lawyers from the private Bar are used to prosecute lower-level misdemeanor crimes, freeing sworn prosecutors to work on more serious ones.
"I think I bring to the role an energy and passion and purpose for being a very assertive state attorney," he said.
A former lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, McAuliffe was most recently in private practice. He would leave a salary he estimates at $350,000 a year for the state attorney's salary of about $153,000.
"I would be taking a substantial pay cut and would be happy to do so. That's clearly a voluntary choice I am making," McAuliffe said.
Other priorities, he said, would be protecting children and the elderly. A current domestic violence unit that uses grant money is an example of creative solutions that can be used, he said.
The state attorney wields tremendous power in the criminal justice system: setting policies for the prosecution of tens of thousands of criminal cases, launching grand jury investigations and leading the largest law firm in the county.
He or she also may make trenchant individual decisions, including when to pursue the death penalty and who should be given protection from prosecution, or immunity, for cooperation.
Tringali said he alone would make the ultimate decision about seeking the death penalty. McAuliffe has said he will continue a committee review process in which top prosecutors also review the cases.
Assistant State Attorney Paula Russell ran against McAuliffe in the Democratic primary. Russell has said McAuliffe's lack of experience in the state system will put him at a great disadvantage in leading prosecutions there.
Russell has since endorsed Tringali, who said he also is endorsed by former State Attorney David Bludworth.
McAuliffe has garnered almost every significant endorsement, including those of Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and various voter and political organizations.
According to the Division of Elections, McAuliffe's campaign account is filled with nearly a half million dollars. Tringali's campaign has about $25,000.
Tringali said he was prompted to seek the seat to give back to the community. He also saw the justice system from a victim's perspective after his adult daughter was robbed.
He said the robber originally received just a two-year sentence when he would have gotten a 10-year sentence in most other counties.
"It really more than anything brought home to me what victims of crime go through. It's time to do something about that," he said.