Brett Tolman's days are numbered.
It's just a matter of time before he's out of a job. That's the way things work in this democracy: New president + New political party = New U.S. attorney.
So it's no coincidence that Utah's young federal lawman launched a high-profile case against a 27-year-old monkey-wrencher with a big news conference one day last week. The next, he called The Salt Lake Tribune to schedule a one-on-one, damage-control interview to soften his image.
"There's a perception of heavy-handedness," he said.
Perception wouldn't matter if George W. Bush was still president, if there wasn't a crowd of Democratic attorneys who want his job, if Tolman didn't have political aspirations.
But for Utah's U.S. attorney, perception is everything right now -- the difference between having a job in a few months and running for Congress or perhaps attorney general for a long three years.
"Holdovers are rare," says Scott Matheson, U.S. attorney for Utah from 1993 to 1997. "There's a new administration, a new justice department. At some point, the White House is going to look to put their own people in."
If Tolman wants to keep his job, he has to persuade the Obama administration.
I expect Tolman's patron, Sen. Orrin Hatch, to lobby the White House on his behalf. Hatch helped his protege withstand a challenge from now-disgraced deputy Attorney General Kyle Sampson, the White House's favorite for the post. Tolman was already safely ensconced in Salt Lake City when his minor role in the Bush administration's U.S. attorney scandal came to light.
And after almost three years on the job, I expect Tolman to burnish his conservative credentials by waxing on about the sanctity of the law.
But charging an environmentalist for messing with a corrupt federal auction of oil and gas leases still seems an unconventional campaign tactic to take with a Democratic administration.
After just weeks in office, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recognized a sellout of pristine public land when he saw it and abandoned 77 of the parcels offered at the Dec. 19 auction. And a federal judge blocked the Bureau of Land Management from leasing those properties in a lawsuit filed by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
Tolman insists he's not made of ice. There's no way Tim DeChristopher will serve 10 years for making bogus bids on suspect oil and natural gas leases, he says. Not even five.
While Tolman talks about making a deal, DeChristopher is not interested. "I think he probably expected throwing out the idea of a 10-year sentence would scare me -- and it does," he says. "But I think he thought I would shut my mouth and beg for a plea deal. I won't."
"Tim has not hurt anybody, has not done any damage," says Pat Shea, DeChristopher's defense attorney, former BLM director, and one of those lobbying for Tolman's job. "Having a trial where we can educate people about the illegitimacy of the process is very attractive."
I'm starting to think Tolman is borrowing a page from Patrick Fitzgerald, the Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney for northern Illinois who is prosecuting former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Maybe a time-consuming case will buy some time, a little job security.
But he might have miscalculated. To those who aren't Mike Noel, DeChristopher is a sympathetic character -- not unlike the Boston teapartiers or Mormon pioneers who challenged an oppressive government to establish Zion in Mexico's territory. At one time, this place was founded in an act of civil disobedience.
I just filled out a jury questionnaire for federal court. I hope they call.