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

In his role as federal lawman, Ryan shows a state prosecutor's relish for bagging thugs. During his 11 years with the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, he prosecuted dozens of murder and gang-related cases. Over the last year, his office, applying racketeering and trigger-lock laws, indicted two dozen members of the Down Below and Page Street gangs. The aggressive push has occurred at a time when the San Francisco District Attorney's Office has moved slowly in prosecuting gang-related homicides.

Between 2004 and last year, Ryan's gang crackdown boosted the number of organized-crime cases from eight to 61; weapons-related prosecutions jumped from 89 to 110. The rising figures elicit hosannas from San Francisco police. "Kevin Ryan has given us great support," says Capt. Kevin Cashman, head of the SFPD's investigations bureau. "He understands what we're up against."

Ryan has tagged along with DEA agents on a pair of drug stings the last two years. Javier Pena, special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office, describes him "as a man who wants to be involved, someone who's always open to ideas."

The gang and drug busts, though lesser known than BALCO, land on the list of high-profile cases handled by Ryan's office. Macaulay, his spokesman, ticks off others: convictions of 10 people on charges related to trafficking of prostitutes from South Korea to San Francisco brothels; Operation Copycat, a nationwide music, movie, and software piracy case that so far has seen 32 defendants convicted; and the ongoing prosecution of Reliant Energy executives accused of price-fixing during the state energy crisis in 2000.

But beneath the headlines lies the small print that reveals a plunge in the office's overall caseload. In 2001, with Mueller and then Shapiro in charge, prosecutors filed 1,291 cases, according to a Syracuse University database that tracks Justice Department statistics. The next year, Ryan's first, the number tumbled to 1,013, and from 2003 to 2005, the office averaged 947 prosecutions a year, a drop of nearly 27 percent in four years.

Ryan's critics rap him hardest for the drop in white-collar cases. Prosecutors filed 93 last year, down from 214 in 2000, the same year Mueller formed the office's high-tech crimes unit, the first of its kind in the country. The decrease in cases, while mirroring a national trend that bespeaks the feds' greater emphasis on antiterrorism efforts, troubles legal experts, given that Ryan's office patrols Silicon Valley.

"Just because the number of cases has gone down doesn't mean human venality has changed," says Peter Keane, dean emeritus of the Golden Gate University School of Law. "You would think there would be a steady stream of dot-com fat cats heading into court."

The ongoing stock options back-dating probe may portend at least a trickle, with executives of Brocade indicted in August and other companies under federal scrutiny. Yet Keane, a former San Francisco public defender, argues that Ryan has abdicated the U.S. Attorney's traditional role of prosecuting large-scale tax, fraud, and political corruption cases. "A district attorney will go after gang cases and gun cases," he says. "But it's really only the federal prosecutor who can do the big white-collar cases."

Prosecutors in Ryan's office contend that the constant staff churn slows pursuit of complex white-collar crimes, as new attorneys must spend weeks, sometimes months, bushwhacking through documents to learn a case. The ongoing federal probe of state Senator Don Perata's business dealings has lagged since last year, when Burch, the Oakland branch chief handling the case, quit the office. Last week's departure of Haywood Gilliam, the lead attorney on the Reliant Energy case, could further bog down that long-running prosecution.

Budget cuts have trimmed Ryan's staff by a dozen prosecutors since 2004. The shortage of bodies, coupled with veteran attorneys burning time to break in recent arrivals, hampers the office's ability to cultivate fresh cases, an ex-prosecutor says. "You should be able to do both — violent crimes and white-collar. But there's a lot of new people playing catch-up, so you don't see as many [white-collar] cases being brought."

Or as much rapport between the U.S. Attorney's Office and law enforcement agencies seeking to refer cases to it. A prosecutor recounts that, in the Mueller era, federal agents would hang out in the hallways, pestering attorneys for a 10-minute meeting to sell a case. "It's a lot quieter these days," the lawyer says.

Similarly, Kathleen Bisaccia, former head of the SEC's San Francisco branch, noticed that as longtime attorneys left the Northern District, their replacements returned fewer calls on potential cases. "When you lose that relationship with someone who's been there for years, it's going to slow things down."

Yet the number of cases filed barely scrapes at the top soil of the office's deeper work, argues Mark Krotoski, the acting criminal division chief. He offers the example of BALCO. The probe, while counting as only two indictments, prodded Congress to strengthen steroids laws and Major League Baseball to conduct its own investigation.

"Numbers just tell part of the story," Krotoski says. "You have to look at the complexity of the case."

Portman, the Federal Public Defender, credits that measured approach to Ryan. "The office under him seems more concerned with large cases, as opposed to rounding up a bunch of illegal immigrants."

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