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

Wednesday, Oct 4 2006
Kevin Ryan must have felt like a man invited to his own stoning. A hive of Department of Justice auditors had spent a week interviewing the U.S. Attorney's staff about his command of the office. Such on-site appraisals, performed every three years by review teams dispatched from Washington, D.C., climax with evaluators airing employee criticisms of the boss.

Ryan and his division supervisors joined the D.C. crew in a large conference room in the U.S. Attorney's Office, nestled on the 11th floor of the Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. A video feed transmitted the meeting to the agency's branch offices in Oakland and San Jose. Sitting in silence, Ryan listened while, one by one, auditors pelted him with a litany of staff complaints.

Attorneys in the office disparaged him as isolated, inflexible, and disengaged from the agency's work. They blamed his managerial style for poisoning morale and neutering the authority of supervisors. Several accused him of granting too much control over personnel and legal decisions to his first assistant, creating an autocracy by proxy.

Those who attended the meeting or watched the simulcast suspected that, as he absorbed the harsh remarks, fury roiled beneath Ryan's rigid exterior. When the auditors finished their presentation, he said little before stalking from the room. "I'm sure it was unpleasant for him," one federal prosecutor says. "But he shouldn't have been surprised."

The review, conducted in March, proved a dramatic drop-off from Ryan's first evaluation in 2003, a year after President Bush appointed him to the post. Back then, he enjoyed robust staff support, and the Justice Department rated the Northern District of California as arguably the strongest of its U.S. Attorney offices. Over the next three years, owing to a mass emigration of veteran prosecutors who chafed under Ryan's rule, the goodwill waned, along with the office's status. Seven months past the latest audit, the staff's mood remains as dour as its opinions of the man in charge.

"There's still a sense of malaise," another attorney in the office says, "and he's still bunkered."

Indeed, in interviews with two dozen current and former prosecutors, defense lawyers, and federal judges, an image emerges of Ryan as either oblivious to or dismissive of the unrest around him. More than 50 attorneys have quit on his watch, depriving the office of some of its longest-serving criminal and civil litigators. Legal observers regard the turnover as the primary reason for the office's caseload falling during the Ryan era, a trend evinced by a steep decline in white-collar prosecutions.

By contrast, the number of tactical blunders committed by prosecutors appears on the rise. A recent spate of gaffes, including one that ignited an ongoing federal probe, has magnified a perception of Ryan as out of touch. Beyond the interest he shows in BALCO and a handful of other marquee cases, his critics contend, the post of U.S. Attorney stands vacant.

"I'm smart enough to know what I don't know," Ryan told the San Jose Mercury News a month before he assumed office. With his reappointment looming, some wonder if he knows why the almost universal praise he enjoyed four years ago has curdled.

The audit marked only the latest and loudest geyser of vitriol to spew within Ryan's office. Before leaving for private practice last year, Prosecutor John Hemann e-mailed his colleagues a copy of an open letter addressed to Ryan. He described a staff beset by low spirits and high attrition, and a U.S. Attorney inclined to ignore their concerns.

"There are problems in the office now that have not existed in kind or magnitude since I got here in 1995 ... ," wrote Hemann, who served on the federal Enron task force that prosecuted the company's executives. "It is no solution to deny these problems exist. ... People in the office — lawyers and staff — are unhappy and frustrated. People outside the office are critical and, increasingly, derisive."

In January, two months before the on-site appraisal, another longtime prosecutor, George Bevan, broached similar themes in a letter he sent to Justice Department officials handling the audit. According to excerpts published in The Recorder, a Bay Area legal journal, Bevan wrote of an office "in crisis" and faulted "gross mismanagement" for the attorney exodus.

Bevan, a criminal prosecutor in the agency's Oakland branch, declined to comment to SF Weekly. Hemann, a partner at the San Francisco office of Morgan Lewis, did not respond to interview requests.

But their claims jibe with those offered by other attorneys in the office and ex-prosecutors who worked under Ryan. They depict him as aloof, quick to anger, and intolerant of debate, a manager who considers it a breach of fidelity to question his decisions. "It doesn't matter how much you know about the law or how much experience you have," a prosecutor says. "To him, what matters is loyalty; asking questions is disloyal."

Alluding to that "climate of suspicion," as one attorney called it, prosecutors who spoke to SF Weekly requested anonymity, fearing reprisals; former prosecutors also were loath to talk for attribution, citing professional and personal ties to the office. Yet the sheer number of lawyers voicing discontent suggests an agency in upheaval.

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.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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