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Spitzer taps O'Donnell for criminal justice post

Denise O'Donnell, a former U.S. attorney from Buffalo, is in line to become the state's criminal justice czar, overseeing the state's crime-fighting agencies and developing new policies against white-collar and street crimes, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer said Thursday.

The nomination of O'Donnell, who ran unsuccessfully for the nomination for the state attorney general's job won last year by Andrew Cuomo, was one of 11 announced by Spitzer to fill top jobs in agencies overseeing parks, mental health, agriculture and consumer protection.

Her appointment is subject to State Senate approval.

O'Donnell, 59, has a long career in criminal justice, both as a victim's advocate and a prosecutor. Her more-famous cases included a role in the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the investigation and apprehension of James C. Kopp in the murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian.

A native of Cheektowaga, O'Donnell first thought of a career in law while a member of her high school debate team at Mount St. Joseph Academy. A partner at Hodgson Russ in Buffalo, O'Donnell graduated from the University at Buffalo Law School. She served as a federal prosecutor for 17 years after having served as a law clerk for her legal mentor, the late Justice M. Dolores Denman of the State Supreme Court's Appellate Division.

O'Donnell went to the U.S. attorney's office in 1985 and eight years later was named by then-U.S. Attorney Patrick NeMoyer as his chief assistant. Four years later, then-President Bill Clinton tapped her as the first woman to head the U.S. attorney's office in Buffalo. She was in the job until 2001.

O'Donnell earned valuable points and respect with Spitzer when she dropped out of the attorney general's race soon after the Democratic convention in Buffalo last year after Cuomo won the nomination -- thereby helping the party avoid a primary fight.

O'Donnell did her undergraduate work at Canisius College and received a master's degree in social work at the University at Buffalo.

NeMoyer, now a State Supreme Court judge, said O'Donnell has all the paper attributes for the job: top of her graduating class at law school and a long history as a prosecutor. But the judge said O'Donnell's former career as a social worker brings a unique asset to the job Spitzer wants her to fill.

NeMoyer said O'Donnell's new post will put her fingers into the workings of more than a dozen different state agencies -- something that requires its occupant being more than just a former prosecutor.

"She will bring not just a prosecutor's perspective; she brings a real humanistic approach and a broader approach," the judge said, that will help the state not only consider ways to crack down on crime but also consider new ways to rehabilitate criminals and prevent crime in the first place.

O'Donnell said her social work background will help in efforts to help reduce recidivism rates by criminals and with programs to help young people avoid turning to crime.

"So many of those areas that I worked on [as a social worker] play such a pivotal role in the criminal justice system in causing criminal behavior and in working to try to help individuals turn their lives around," she said.

O'Donnell worked as a legal assistant for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the Buffalo school desegregation case from 1979 to 1981.

O'Donnell will manage 40,000 people involved in the state's criminal justice agencies, which have a total budget of $4 billion.

"I am enthusiastic about working with a governor who understands criminal justice issues and who really has been a leader in the country in setting the direction for criminal justice initiatives," O'Donnell said in an interview.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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