Untouchable

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

Yet several of their onetime co-workers insist that, to varying degrees, the three men sought a career change out of frustration with their loss of autonomy. "Those guys were the lifer type," says a former federal prosecutor about the trio, none of whom agreed to talk with SF Weekly. "They had stuck around through all these other [U.S. Attorneys]. That office was where they wanted to be."

Former colleagues characterize the loss of Burch, who preceded Nadel as criminal division chief, as the stiffest blow to the staff. Revered as a walking index of the federal code, he knew the intricacies of the law as acutely as he understood the tendencies of Northern District judges. "Ben was the guy who could help you on the little issues, the judgment calls where he could give you answers based on his own experience," an ex-prosecutor says. "There's nobody left like that."

A total of 101 prosecutors make up the Northern District's three-branch office. The exodus of more than 50 attorneys during Ryan's reign peaked last year, when 17 walked away. Ten have packed up this year, and rumors persist that two others may follow by month's end.

Current prosecutors and their departed cohorts link the turnover to Choi's greater influence and Ryan's diminished visibility. In his first year, Ryan mingled with the staff, urging attorneys to stop by his office anytime and soliciting their opinions on whom to promote. But after elevating Choi to first assistant, his detractors contend, he withdrew, ceding the day-to-day grind of running the office to her. He closed his open door, requiring attorneys who wanted to see him to arrange an appointment through his secretary, and meeting only if Choi also had time to attend.

"She's the gatekeeper," another ex-prosecutor says of Choi. "People have to go through or past her to talk to him."

Ryan's time as a state judge and county prosecutor provided scant training for supervising a big office rife with the outsized egos common to prosecutors. Shy by nature, according to those who have worked with him, he appears to rely on Choi as a buffer — perhaps to his detriment. "It just makes him seem more remote," one prosecutor says. "Being U.S. Attorney is not an impossibly difficult job. Slap people on the back, thank them for their work, and then take all the credit. But just talking to people seems beyond him."

Mueller, the former U.S. Attorney, strolled the hallways around 5 p.m. each day to perform "bed checks," chatting with his lawyers about their cases. The visits, though annoying to some, served to motivate the staff to match his zeal. If Ryan made similar rounds, another prosecutor says, he would find rows of empty offices.

"People don't hang around till 8:30 at night anymore — they're out by 5. Why would you stick around? Morale sucks."

Attorneys conveyed that attitude during the Justice Department appraisal in March. Precisely what Ryan or Choi thought of the review is harder to discern — neither agreed to an interview with SF Weekly. Discussing the office's status quo fell to spokesman Luke Macaulay, who pointed out that the auditors' presentation involved preliminary findings; a final written report will detail "positive accomplishments."

An average of 11 prosecutors quit in the two years before Ryan took office, compared to 13 a year since his arrival. Macaulay quotes the statistics to counter claims of a soaring attrition rate under Ryan, ascribing the departures to the office's retirement buyout offer and the lure of bigger salaries in private practice. He provides more numbers in disputing the perception of a staff bereft of veteran attorneys. Since 2002, the office has hired 24 prosecutors from other U.S. Attorney districts and Justice Department agencies.

In assessing the turnover at the office of his putative adversary, Barry Portman, the federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California, downplays its impact. "If you have people who are there too long, things can get stale," says Portman, who declined to talk about Ryan. "New blood can be healthy."

Likewise, says Little, the Hastings law professor, grousing about staff departures occurs under every U.S. Attorney. He recalls joining Russoniello's office in 1989 to replace a prosecutor who left after four years. Skeptics said the office would miss the man's experience — the same refrain that trailed Little out the door in 1994.

"History is remarkably short-sighted," he says. "People used to say Joe Russoniello wasn't doing a good job. Then after he was gone, they started calling those the golden days."

But the number of lawyers who have bolted from Ryan's staff may matter less than the accrued institutional knowledge they took with them. By conservative estimate, the office has lost prosecutors with a total of more than 500 years of experience in the Northern District. Aside from Burch, Nadel, and Howland, longtime prosecutors who departed include Steven Gruel, former chief of the major crimes unit, and Patrick Robbins, who ran the securities fraud section. The two logged a combined quarter-century in the office.

Both lawyers, now in private practice, declined to comment. Even so, they belong to the growing diaspora of ex-prosecutors who, while working under Robert Mueller's direction, turned the Northern District into one of the nation's most vaunted U.S. Attorney's offices. Such acclaim has fallen mute.


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