In 2001, President Bush was trying to fill the post of U.S. attorney in Milwaukee. Three Republican congressmen from Wisconsin urged him to consider a well-known GOP prosecutor, Joseph Paulus, for the coveted job.
The state's two Democratic U.S. senators also gave Bush suggestions, but Paulus wasn't among them.
The senators did, however, recommend an unelected assistant prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office named Steven M. Biskupic.
Biskupic hadn't been active in party politics, but Bush picked him anyway.
"The political choice was Joe Paulus because he was an elected Republican, and he had been active in Republican Party circles doing things for political candidates," said Mark Graul, a GOP consultant who was chief of staff for one of the congressmen at the time.
"The only thing people knew about Steve was he was a prosecutor all of his life."
But as members of Congress investigate the role of hardball politics in the firings of U.S. attorneys, some question whether Biskupic's work has become colored by politics.
Several of Biskupic's corruption prosecutions have been trumpeted by Republicans seeking political gain. Because some of the cases later met with rebukes from the courts, there has been speculation that Biskupic avoided being fired by succumbing to Bush administration pressure.
"When you put all the dots together it sure looks like there's an issue here," said Joe Wineke, chairman of the state Democratic Party. "The problem with this whole thing is it's all conjecture. Whether Mr. Biskupic did anything wrong or not, this is what happens when you politicize the law.
"Even if he did everything with the purest of motives, who's going to believe it? Not me."
In an interview in the federal courthouse in Milwaukee on Friday, Biskupic maintained that political considerations played no role in the cases he has tried and that he wasn't pressured by the Bush administration to bring any of them.
"I never perceived there was some interest in Milwaukee by the upper echelon in Washington, and if there was, I don't think I'd have cared," Biskupic said. "I was dealing with the facts on the ground."
"I try to call them as I see them. I know people are trying to piece together motives. But you take the cases, look at the facts and make decisions," he said.
The Congressional investigation has focused on the Justice Department's firing of eight U.S. attorneys. The department employs 93 U.S. attorneys who lead federal law enforcement in their districts.
Biskupic was drawn into the probe last month when a White House counselor revealed that Bush had received complaints that voter fraud in Wisconsin wasn't being dealt with adequately.
The White House said Bush had discussed those complaints with Biskupic's boss, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
In fact, in 2004 Biskupic and Milwaukee County District Attorney Mike McCann, a Democrat, had led a high-profile voter fraud investigation. While they filed some individual fraud cases, they didn't find the potent conspiracy state Republicans had alleged.
Earlier this month, scrutiny of Biskupic intensified. He suffered a stinging defeat on April 5, when a federal appeals court abruptly overturned the 2006 conviction of a state purchasing agent he had charged with steering a state contract to a company whose executives donated to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Republicans used the election-year prosecution to attack Doyle as corrupt.
One of the appeals judges called the prosecution's evidence extremely weak, prompting questions about whether the prosecution was unjustified -- except as a way to embarrass Doyle.
WENT TO MARQUETTE
Lawyers, academics and political figures -- Democrats and Republicans -- describe Biskupic as a principled career prosecutor with limited interest in party politics. As a federal employee most of his adult life, he has been prohibited by law from such activity.
He said he has never participated in party politics. He wouldn't describe himself as a Republican, but he said he "felt comfortable" being appointed by a Republican president.
Biskupic, 46, is the fifth of nine children of a Croatian-Irish family raised in the Chicago suburbs.
His brother Vince was the elected Outagamie County district attorney from 1994 to 2002, when he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for state attorney general. (About that time, he was criticized by the state Ethics Board for a crime prevention fund supported by money people gave to avoid prosecution or get reduced charges.)
Steven Biskupic followed his older sister Joan Biskupic to Marquette University in Milwaukee to pursue journalism. Like his father, Vincent, he ended up studying law and becoming a lawyer.
His sister described him as reserved and unassuming.
"He usually doesn't make waves," said Joan Biskupic, now a reporter for USA Today. "Basically his story is this: He's a hard worker and a straight arrow. He's a person who thinks about what is the right thing to do, not only in his work but in life."
After graduating from Marquette's law school, Biskupic clerked for two years for a Milwaukee-based federal judge, Robert Warren. He joined the U.S. attorney's office in Milwaukee as an assistant in 1989.
"He loved that atmosphere," Joan Biskupic said of her brother's time with Judge Warren. "I think the courthouse atmosphere was exciting for him.
Biskupic was hired by a Republican appointee, but after Bill Clinton was elected president, he had a Democratic boss in Tom Schneider, who took over the office in 1991.
Biskupic spent most of his time as an assistant pursuing white-collar and financial crimes, Schneider said. Biskupic investigated financial fraud, embezzlement, money laundering -- even the fraudulent sale of Brett Favre memorabilia.
"As an investigative attorney and an attorney prosecuting cases in court he did an excellent job," Schneider said. "He put together some fairly complex white-collar crime cases."
Biskupic said financial crimes were among the first he was assigned and after that he sought to develop expertise.
THEY HAVE LEEWAY
In theory, presidents appoint people who agree with them philosophically and on an approach to the law, said David Canon, a UW-Madison political science professor, but a U.S. attorney should have the leeway to pursue cases without political interference. The attorneys can be fired at any time -- but that rarely happens.
The Bush administration declined to say why Biskupic was chosen over Paulus and others. Paulus was later convicted on bribery charges.
Observers said Biskupic has led the office in a serious, low-key manner.
"You never get the impression he's trying to get his name in the paper or side with one group or another," said Janine Geske, a former state Supreme Court judge and law professor at Marquette, where Biskupic has also taught each spring for the last three years.
But soon after taking office, Biskupic set his sights on a class of criminal activity that did get headlines: public corruption.
By July 2003, his office had won convictions or guilty pleas against three municipal Milwaukee politicians.
In 2004, state Sen. Gary George, a Milwaukee Democrat, was sentenced to four years in prison after Biskupic charged him with conspiracy to defraud the government.
George's lawyer, who was a former state Democratic Party chairman, agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy.
Also in 2004, Biskupic accused four road construction executives who were Republican donors of rigging the bidding process for state contracts under governors of both parties. A year later, he charged four other Republican donors with embezzlement related to contributions to such GOP candidates as Bush and former governor Scott McCallum.
"It was something I thought should be looked at," Biskupic said of public corruption.
He noted that his office, its counterpart in Madison, the state attorney general's office, the FBI and various county district attorneys have been in communication for years on possible public corruption cases.
Dennis Coffey, a Milwaukee defense lawyer who has represented two men charged by Biskupic's office in public corruption cases, said Biskupic has "pushed the limits" in interpreting what actions by public officials and others constitute federal crimes.
But Coffey said he thinks Biskupic has been motivated by a sincere belief that laws have been broken.
"Do I think being careful about initiating prosecutions is important? Yes. People's lives get ruined. There's a big burden on a prosecutor. But I think Steve Biskupic considers that," Coffey said.
FOUR MONTHS IN PRISON
Georgia Thompson, a state purchasing agent for Doyle's Department of Administration, was indicted in January 2006 and convicted six months later in the midst of a heated gubernatorial election.
She spent four months in prison before the federal appeals panel reversed the conviction and ordered her immediately set free -- with one judge saying the evidence was "beyond thin."
The same judge, Diane P. Wood of the 7th U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, also had harsh words when the panel rejected a 2005 voter fraud conviction won by Biskupic's office against a woman who voted despite having a felony record, The New York Times reported.
"I find this whole prosecution mysterious," Wood said. "I don't know whether the Eastern District of Wisconsin goes after every felon who accidentally votes. It is not like she voted five times."
Biskupic said he hasn't prosecuted for political reasons.
"Nobody told me my job was on the line, so how could that have affected what I did?" he said. "And public corruption cases weren't a new thing for our office or the prosecutors I was working with."
He wouldn't say if the grand jury that indicted Thompson is continuing to investigate allegations of corruption.
WHITE HOUSE SCRUTINY
Biskupic acknowledges that before the Thompson prosecution, he had come under internal scrutiny at the White House.
In March 2005 Biskupic was considered "underperforming" or "disloyal" by the Justice Department, he said. But he said he only learned that in recent weeks as the controversy over the firings has unfolded.
Sometime that spring, the Republican Party of Wisconsin sent a lengthy report to White House political adviser Karl Rove outlining concerns about alleged voter fraud in Milwaukee. Biskupic and the Democratic district attorney had already begun an investigation into allegations of voter fraud during the 2004 election.
Of 14 voter fraud cases subsequently brought by Biskupic's office, five convictions resulted, The New York Times reported.
Nancy Joseph, a federal defender who represented three people accused of voter fraud, said the cases never should have been brought.
"I did not think it was a good use of resources, given the (defendants') lack of knowledge about the law," she said.
Biskupic said the voter fraud cases warranted prosecution. But after losing several cases, his office learned from jurors that sloppy record keeping in Milwaukee prevented them from issuing convictions and the prosecutions stopped, he said.
Biskupic's efforts weren't enough for some Republicans, leading to complaints to Bush. Some of the fired U.S. attorneys were also criticized for not being aggressive enough in pursuing voter fraud cases, according to Department of Justice documents.
REVIEWING HIS APPROACH
Biskupic said in the interview Friday that he'll continue doing what he's been doing. "There's been a lot (of criticism), but I'm not going to stop doing my job and I'm not going to stop working on public corruption cases," he said.
But he conceded that the blunt appeals court decision in the Thompson case has prompted him to review his office's approach.
He noted that the same court has upheld several of his public corruption prosecutions.
Biskupic's office has given the Justice Department more than 100 pages of documents requested by Congress. And the House Judiciary Committee has asked the department to let Biskupic testify.
For his part, Biskupic said the Congressional inquiry has not affected work in his office.
But others said the furor surrounding the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys has created discomfort for Biskupic and his colleagues who are still in their jobs.
"The biggest harm to the system is that it has politicized an office that shouldn't be politicized," said Canon, the UW professor. "The U.S. attorneys are looking over their shoulders."
Steven M. Biskupic
Position: U.S. Attorney for Wisconsin's Eastern District
Education: Marquette University, 1983, journalism; 1987, law
Family: Wife, Cary
Steven M. Biskupic, the top federal prosecutor for eastern Wisconsin, has been drawn into the scandal over the firing of eight of his peers. He has long been seen as a straight arrow and an aggressive prosecutor, but a high-profile appeals court reversal has raised questions about his motives.
Biskupic vows to continue investigating corruption by public officials. Members of Congress want to question him as part of their investigation.