Untouchable

Half of U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan's lawyers have quit. But as he remains bunkered against criticism, who's minding the shop?

The friction began intensifying in fall 2003, burning through the good cheer that insulated Ryan during his first year. In July 2002, he inherited the office from interim U.S. Attorney David Shapiro, who filled in for a year after Robert Mueller departed to head the FBI.

Mueller bequeathed a U.S. Attorney's Office whose reputation he dusted off and buffed to a high sheen. His predecessor, Michael Yamaguchi, resigned in 1998, forced out by Justice Department officials amid the office's sinking caseload and fractured morale. Armed with a reformer's mandate, Mueller jettisoned a dozen supervisors in his first six months and ordered his attorneys to start filing more cases.

The ex-Marine's blunt manner earned him the label of dictator. Yet during his three-year tenure, Mueller also nurtured a collective pride among his attorneys, gaining respect for his work ethic and legal acumen. He visited courtrooms to observe them in action, and whether they won or lost a verdict, he seldom forgot to praise their effort. He played the role of staff advocate in court, appearing with his lawyers on occasion to press the prosecution's argument if a judge doubted its merit.

Revitalized by Mueller, the office filed 1,512 cases in 2000, almost double its total two years earlier, when Yamaguchi stepped down. Prosecutors hunted big game, indicting members of the Nuestra Familia gang by exploiting racketeering laws; pursuing a massive corporate-fraud case against drug giant McKesson HBOC; and charging former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko in a money-laundering scam.

The Northern District office prosecutes criminal and civil offenses across a region stretching from Monterey to the California-Oregon border, and the U.S. Attorney ranks as the area's top law enforcement official. As the office flourished under Mueller, the FBI and other federal agencies — if given a choice of court venues based on a crime's geographic range — started referring more cases to the Northern District. He rode that swell of success to his post with the FBI in 2001.

"He had the pulse of the entire office," one veteran prosecutor says. "But he trusted his division chiefs and he gave people the freedom to make decisions."

Shapiro more or less sustained the momentum between Mueller's exit and Ryan's entrance. Following a six-year stint as a Municipal and Superior Court judge in San Francisco, Ryan arrived as an esteemed trial jurist and a devoted Republican: Visitors to his court chambers at the Hall of Justice could expect to hear the radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh's show.

"He's a real Boy Scout," says former federal prosecutor Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law. "He believes in the work."

A San Francisco native and former Alameda County prosecutor, Ryan, 48, won the U.S. Attorney job despite lacking federal court experience. Most legal experts disregarded that hole in his résumé, including Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. Attorney before Yamaguchi, who surmounted the same deficiency.

Russoniello chaired the search committee that recommended Ryan to White House officials. In a 2002 newspaper interview, he downplayed the need for the incoming U.S. Attorney to possess federal bona fides. "What is important is the capacity to manage a lot of people who do have a deep understanding of the rules," Russoniello said.

On that count, Ryan's critics brand him both inept and indolent. In the words of one former prosecutor, "While he's been there, the soul of the office has left."


After Ryan's relatively calm first year, the honeymoon ended in October 2003. That month, Ryan named Eumi Choi as his first assistant, a position with oversight of the criminal division and the narcotics task force, as well as the Oakland and San Jose branches.

A federal prosecutor for six years in Washington, D.C., before she moved to San Francisco in 2000, Choi already supervised the civil, tax, and administrative divisions as the executive assistant U.S. Attorney. The dual managerial roles and Ryan's blessing gave her, in effect, carte blanche over the office.

Current and former prosecutors assert that, from the moment of her promotion, Choi clashed with supervisors and attorneys alike. Sources allege that she usurped the authority of division chiefs, forcing them to clear charging decisions with her and dictating case strategy. Section meetings, once free-flowing affairs in which managers and prosecutors swapped ideas, turned funereal, the staff loath to contradict Choi's edicts.

"It became all about following directions," a prosecutor says.

Likewise, Choi wielded a heavy hand in personnel matters: She remains under investigation as part of a federal probe into the firing of an administrative officer last summer. Attorneys joked that the only aspect of office life unscathed by her influence were the farewell parties held for outgoing colleagues.

Last year, over the span of four months, the staff hosted goodbye soirees for Jonathan Howden, Ross Nadel, and Ben Burch, who together boasted some 60 years of experience working in the office. At the time of their respective departures, Howden headed the narcotics task force, Nadel ran the criminal division, and Burch oversaw the Oakland branch. Howden and Nadel accepted early retirement packages to join private firms, while Burch moved to the Superior Court bench in Contra Costa County.

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