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Freedom, justice driving forces of U.S. attorney

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Monday, Oct. 24, 2011

A glass-encased frame tucked into a corner of a wall in David J. Hickton's office protects a brass badge.

The badge belonged to his late father, Jack Hickton, Allegheny County's district attorney for two years in the mid-1970s. It inspires Hickton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

"It's in my DNA. I always knew I wanted to do public service," said Hickton, 56, of Thornburg in his first in-depth interview since taking office in August 2010. "I have the privilege of a lifetime. I think my dad would be proud. He taught me to always do the right thing every day, and to be my own man."

A Democrat nominated by President Obama, Hickton left the North Shore offices of the Burns, White & Hickton law firm he co-founded in 1987 and succeeded Mary Beth Buchanan as the top federal prosecutor. He would not talk about Buchanan, a Republican whose term in office included controversial prosecutions of extreme pornography producers, county politicians and famous drug-comic Tommy Chong. Critics tried to tie her to dismissals of fellow U.S. attorneys that some lawmakers called political.

Hickton said he declined media interviews until he had been in office for a full year to establish a record. In his first year, he closed two high-profile cases: In January, he agreed to a plea deal and 16-year prison term for Christina Korbe, 42, of Indiana Township for fatally shooting FBI Agent Sam Hicks in 2008; and in May, he said investigators did not have evidence to charge three Pittsburgh police officers accused of beating Homewood teenager Jordan Miles during an arrest.

Now, though his office won't acknowledge it, the FBI is investigating county jail operations following accusations of inmate beatings and a cover-up by jail officials.

Hickton acknowledges the racially charged Miles case led to "a difficult and troubling decision."

It earned him critics, but even lawyers who have fought the government applaud the job he's doing.

"Dave is a good guy," said J. Kerrington Lewis, the attorney representing Miles. "He is positive and even-tempered, fair, honest and has integrity. I disagree in the decision that was made, but I know that he made the decision based on all of the evidence and advice of those involved with the situation."

Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, finds Hickton approachable and thoughtful. He said Hickton has worked to improve relations between police and minorities, which hit a low point with the Miles case. Miles' civil rights lawsuit against the city and officers is scheduled for a federal court trial in July.

"Dave confronted it directly and brought people together to talk about it," Walczak said. "I give him high marks for that."

Bob Eberhardt, deputy U.S. attorney in Ethics and Professional Responsibility, worked for both Hickton men. "I see some of the same qualities in Dave that his dad had," he said. "Dave is passionate about what he does and wants to make the office better."

'A sense of urgency'

One of 93 U.S. attorneys nationwide, Hickton oversees prosecutions that could include drug dealers, white-collar criminals, corrupt politicians or terrorists. His office defends the government in civil cases and coordinates activity among law enforcement agencies with 51 assistant prosecutors and 60 support staffers between Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Erie.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, among those who suggested Hickton's nomination to Obama, calls Hickton "a superb lawyer and true professional ... a tough and relentless prosecutor."

In addition to his father's badge, a photograph of a soaring eagle and a Life magazine photo of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-Mass., running along a beach with his dog hang in Hickton's Downtown office. To him, the photos represent freedom and justice.

This job, he said, "is a finite experience, so I have a sense of urgency in my work. I get up every day because I know there are so many things to do, and I want to get after them. Each day, I celebrate the opportunity I have here, and it's based on those two words: freedom and justice."

His days vary more than Pittsburgh weather.

On a recent day, Hickton attended a morning program at Mt. Lebanon Library to talk to seniors about identity theft, and then several staff meetings. He met a friend for lunch Downtown before a court appearance. He later participated in a conference call, perused his e-mail and took a firearm lesson. He is learning to shoot for the same reason that he adjusts his daily routine: security.

He equipped his family's $650,000 home with cameras but won't say whether someone has threatened him. "Let's say there have been issues," he said.

Part of staying safe is managing risk, he said -- being aware of one's surroundings, for example, and acknowledging that the United States faces growing threats since 9/11.

"Threat has multiple directions to it, and our ways to prevent and prosecute need to be readjusted," Hickton said. "It's a big change and a big challenge."

He projects a tough persona for the job, but Hickton has a softer side. He shares make-believe meals made from plastic food with his young daughter and her stuffed animals. He stopped to hug and kiss his mother, Gloria, who attended the Mt. Lebanon presentation.

He starts most days before dawn on an exercise bike in his basement, where he watches TV news. He turns on his computer after spending a few moments with his family. He and his wife, Dawne, parents to six children, have been married for 27 years. She is CEO of RTI International Metals Inc. in Moon, one of the world's largest producers of titanium mill products.

"We are like any other family," Hickton said. "We have all the joys and challenges and ups and downs. I consider my most important job being a good father, husband and member of my family."

He keeps reminders of those loved ones in his office: a note that reads "I Love Dad" and photographs. Thinking of family helps during stressful days, said Hickton, who relaxes by gardening or playing golf, though there's not much time for that now, even if the weather would allow it.

'I am my toughest critic'

At the office, Hickton met with Ted Johnson, chief probation officer for the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, to talk about gun violence, gangs and an initiative to keep fathers involved in kids' lives.

Meetings with Hickton, said Johnson, "have some meat to them. His door is always open. I respect him and the work he is doing."

Hickton's executive assistant, Tamara Collier, believes he's making a difference. "Dave is genuine," Collier said. "He is real, which is hard to find these days."

Sister Marlene Luffy of the Sisters of Divine Providence, whom he met for lunch at Damon's Grill in the U.S. Steel Tower, has known Hickton since teaching him in first grade at St. Anne Catholic School in Castle Shannon. She taught him again in second, fifth and eighth grades and said she knew even then that he would become a leader.

Luffy remembers a boy with a passion for reading. Hickton reads several books at once. His current list: "The Johnstown Flood" by David McCullough; "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn; and "D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II" by Steven Ambrose.

He said he keeps a children's book, "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein, on his office desk as a reminder to give to others. Under the glass on the desk is a copy of famous words by legendary football coach Vince Lombardi in "Pursuit of Excellence," and a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11.

An excerpt of Lombardi's prose: "The quality of a person's life is in direct proportion to their commitment of excellence regardless of their chosen field of endeavor." The religious text: "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

Before a court appearance this day, Hickton spent a half-hour alone reviewing the case before entering Judge David Cercone's courtroom. There, the attorney accepted a guilty plea from Elizabeth Jones to federal tax evasion and conspiracy charges. Jones, 51, of Upper St. Clair could become a witness in the trial of her ex-housemate, convicted swindler Michael Carlow, 60, who is accused of setting up companies to hide his assets and avoid paying millions of dollars he owes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Hickton said he understands the public wants and needs to know what his office is doing, but he has to counter that with procedural rules and ethical guidelines. He said he typically cannot talk freely about a case until after a person's sentencing.

"I am my toughest critic," Hickton said. "I don't get any do-overs, so I look at it as a process and that I have evaluated all of the information to make the right decisions, because I can't go backwards. I am in a constant state of tweaking and evaluating things.

"I have come to appreciate the most important part of my job is to be worthy."

Photo Galleries

U.S. attorney David Hickton

U.S. attorney David Hickton

A day in the life of U.S. attorney David Hickton, who succeeded Mary Beth Buchanan as the top federal prosecutor in the Western District of Pennsylvania in August 2010.

Additional Information:

David J. Hickton dossier

1981 : Graduated from University of Pittsburgh School of Law, following 1978 graduation from Penn State University; for more than a decade, he was adjunct professor of law at Duquesne University's School of Law

1981-83 : Law clerk for U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond

June 1984 : Married Dawne S. Hickton, who became CEO and board vice chair of RTI International Metals Inc. in Moon in 2007; they have six children

1987 : Co-founded the North Shore law firm of Burns, White & Hickton, now Burns & White, after four years as an associate attorney with Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote

1999 to 2001 : Served on the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts at the request of President Clinton

August 2010 : Sworn in as the 57th U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania

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