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The conversation with David Margolis proved ever so brief. SF Weekly called the associate deputy attorney general last fall at his office in Washington, D.C., to ask about Kevin Ryan, then the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California. "I'm not going to comment," Margolis replied.
Fair enough. But it appears he was eager to read the Weekly's subsequent story about upheaval within the U.S. Attorney's Office during Ryan's tenure ("Untouchable," Oct. 4). The day after the piece appeared online, Margolis e-mailed it to several colleagues, under the subject line "Thought you might be interested in this; It's from a local weekly."
Federal employees reading alt-weekly stories while at work? Guess that war on terrorism isn't such a priority after all.
Margolis' one-man crusade to expand the Weekly's Beltway readership came to light last week, after the Justice Department provided Congress with thousands of internal e-mails and records relevant to the recent purge of eight U.S. attorneys, including Ryan. The document dump occurred as lawmakers investigate the political motives behind the firings, a scandal that has elevated seven of the sacked top prosecutors to living-martyr status.
Ryan counts as the exception, with his firing greeted by a conspicuous lack of outrage. Unlike his cohorts, whose occasional defiance of Justice Department edicts precipitated their demise, Ryan showed unwavering fealty to the Bush regime even after the ax dropped. In an e-mail to one of the agency officials who supported his ouster, Ryan wrote, "You have been a gentleman in your dealings with me, and I appreciate it."
Ultimately, despite Ryan's feverish brown-nosing, he fell victim to his failings as a manager. Last March, Justice Department auditors interviewed Ryan's attorneys about his job performance. The staff maligned their boss, depicting him as uninvolved, quick-tempered, and vindictive. They faulted him for a collective malaise that had driven more than 50 prosecutors from the office since his arrival in 2002.
In other words, while the other seven deposed U.S. attorneys earned mostly high marks for their work, Ryan arguably deserved his fate. Perhaps that explains why he's the only one who has yet to receive a subpoena to testify before Congress about his firing even though Sen. Dianne Feinstein instigated the inquiry into Purgegate, as it's being called. Feinstein has asserted that Ryan and his counterparts were dumped "without cause," but when asked why Ryan had not been subpoenaed, her spokesman declined to comment. (Ryan could not be reached for comment.)
Then again, maybe Feinstein and other lawmakers realize it's unlikely Ryan would criticize the Republican administration. In January, a month before vacating office, he reassured his bosses that he would avoid publicly discussing his departure. An agency official e-mailed his co-workers to relay Ryan's sentiments: "He wanted us to know that he's still a 'company man.'"
Appointed to office by President Bush, Ryan might have survived his poor job reviews on the strength of his Republican ties. But a U.S. district judge identified as Marilyn Hall Patel by The Recorder, a Bay Area legal journal sought to obtain copies of the internal evaluations, initially through Margolis, according to an e-mail he sent to colleagues. Later e-mails exchanged by Justice Department suits revealed their reluctance to turn over the confidential reports; instead, they added Ryan to their U.S. attorney hit list.
If that sounds like an agency beheading a guy for the sake of its own bureaucracy, the lion's share of the blame still lies with Ryan, contends a former prosecutor who worked under him. "It's pretty simple: Do a better job and you'll get better evaluations. Then he wouldn't have had much to worry about."
Ryan's suddenly shrunken profile in the wake of his firing contrasts with the national reputation he nurtured as the federal prosecutor best known for the BALCO case. To those who worked under him, however, Ryan's public vanishing act reminds them of what they saw or, rather, didn't see during his four-plus years as U.S. attorney.
As one veteran prosecutor in the office says, "You had about as much interaction with him as I did." Um, that would be none.
Ryan's interim successor, Scott Schools, will man the post until Bush appoints a permanent replacement in the coming months. After the toxic office culture during Ryan's tenure, another prosecutor says, Schools' presence offers "a breath of clean sea air." Indeed, for those who watched dozens of their colleagues walk away in recent years, the worst has finally passed. "We've gotten rid of the dysfunction," the prosecutor says, referring to Ryan. "Now we can at least strive for mediocrity."
Incidentally, the Weekly wanted to discuss Ryan's firing with Margolis, but a phone message left for him was fobbed off on a Justice Department flack. Dave, we know you're reading this. When you're done, would you mind giving us a call? Thanks, pal.