GOP Prosecutor Targets Dems On Obama's Watch

08/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

BEAUFORT, N.C. — Having swapped his hip-holstered Blackberry for fishing pliers, the U.S. attorney for eastern North Carolina watches closely from the captain's chair aboard the 45-foot "Jolly Mon" as his crew prepares for a day on the water.

The team scans satellite images, examines water temperatures, sharpens hooks, packs reels and tests rods.

"If you get a big fish on here," George Holding says from his perch, "you don't want anything to go wrong."

He might as well be talking about his day job.

A Republican appointee left in charge for an unusually long time by a Democratic White House, Holding has planned investigations into some of the state's top political figures, including two-time presidential candidate John Edwards and former Gov. Mike Easley and his wife.

Holding won't confirm corruption investigations in his district, though subpoenas indicate his office is looking into Easley's travel and his wife's $170,000 job at North Carolina State University. And Edwards, a former U.S. senator, has acknowledged a federal probe into his presidential campaign funds.

Edwards and Easley, who both insist the investigations will turn up no wrongdoing, are two of the most prominent Democrats in North Carolina. That has complicated the replacement process for Holding, who ordinarily would have been on the way out with the change in administration.

Democrats are unwilling to criticize Holding's work, let alone take the politically charged step of unseating him while he's overseeing probes involving members of their party.

"If an investigation is going on, he ought to have the opportunity to complete that investigation," said Sen. Kay Hagan, who recommended that the White House not replace Holding until he completes the probes into Edwards and Easley.

The White House declined to comment. Holding is keeping mum, too.

Holding said in January that, at the request of the White House, he would stay in the office until a new U.S. attorney was appointed. Assuming that the process would only take a couple months, he planned a summer vacation for his wife and three daughters and began thinking about life after being a federal prosecutor, perhaps going into private practice while incorporating some pro bono work or university-level teaching.

Born in Raleigh, Holding is a member of the prominent Smithfield banking family that controls much of First Citizens BancShares Inc., the parent company of First Citizens Bank. He wanted to be a professor, studying topics such as Latin, Roman literature and structures of argument. He briefly studied at the University of St Andrews in Scotland before living for a couple years in London where he traveled, visited museums and began his collection of all things Winston Churchill.

Holding, 41, quotes Confucius and the Bible with an accent that mixes eastern North Carolina twang with snatches of New England intonation he picked up during years of childhood boarding school. He cites Cicero as his inspiration for going to law school, which he did at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

Holding clerked for U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle and worked in private practice specializing in tax matters before getting a call from then-Sen. Jesse Helms. Holding had grown up around the corner from Helms and worked briefly for the senator in college. He worked on tax and agriculture matters under the famously conservative lawmaker.

Despite his boss' reputation, Holding never showed signs of joining the ranks of trunk-waving Republicans, said Jimmy Broughton, Helms' former chief of staff.

"One thing George is not is political," Broughton said.

Former U.S. attorney Frank Whitney recalled that the White House wanted a U.S. attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina who had experience as a prosecutor. Helms wanted Holding for the job.

In the end, a compromise put both Whitney and Holding on the job, with Holding serving as first assistant. Together, they guided investigations into North Carolina's political elite, including former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance and former state House Speaker Jim Black.

The Democrats all were sentenced to prison. Holding has also prosecuted some Republicans, including former U.S. Attorney Sam Currin, another Helms protege who pleaded guilty to money laundering and received a sentence of nearly six years.

Whitney recalled that Holding quickly applied his deliberate personality to the job. He said it can be easy for prosecutors to get overly excited and overly aggressive while pursuing cases that are getting media attention, but he said Holding never got ahead of the evidence.

"He's very smart, very methodical and very thorough in everything he does," said Whitney, who became a federal judge in 2006, leaving Holding in charge. "He does not rush to judgment. He looks at a situation and analyzes it."

That's sort of the way Holding describes his approach to his favorite leisure activity, which includes excursions for big blue marlin and a 300-pound bigeye tuna he nearly landed last year. There's preparation, patience and, admittedly, some luck involved.

"In public corruption cases, you have to be really patient," Holding said. "You have to do your homework. You have to dot every 'i' and cross every 't.'"