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Bush loyalist was added to purge list late

The administration wanted to retain Kevin Ryan as U.S. attorney in S.F. but then fired him to defuse a fuss about his poor job evaluation.

March 22, 2007|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The "company man" hired and fired by the Bush administration as U.S. attorney in San Francisco was a loyal Republican the administration wanted to keep on -- until it appeared he could become a public relations liability.

Unlike seven other fired federal prosecutors who may have run afoul of the administration for political reasons, San Francisco U.S. Atty. Kevin Ryan was a team player for Bush and had influential Republican support. A friend of the president even went to bat for Ryan after his firing.

"You would have to know Kevin," said UC Hastings College of the Law professor Rory Little. "You can't find a stronger supporter of the Bush administration agenda."

His tenure, however, was plagued by morale problems and accusations that he was a bad manager. A number of the office's most experienced lawyers left.

Despite his problems, which were well documented in legal newspapers, Justice officials wanted to keep Ryan on, even as they plotted the firings of other U.S. attorneys. It was only when a Democratic judge threatened to go to Congress to raise a public fuss over an excoriating written evaluation of Ryan's office that Ryan was put on the termination list, according to e-mails released by the White House.

Ryan's critics persuaded Justice that his firing "could avoid the release of documents" highly critical of his management style, Little said.

Ryan, the son of Irish immigrants who married into a well-to-do San Francisco family, was appointed U.S. attorney in 2002. He could not be reached for comment.

Some federal prosecutors in San Francisco and Washington were wary from the start because Ryan was a former state prosecutor and judge with no federal experience, Little said.

Despite his credentials as a Dartmouth graduate, his efforts to go after violent crime and street gangs irked the "Ivy Leaguers" on staff who thought that the traditional domain of federal court was white-collar crime, lawyers said.

Ryan's style was gritty; he even liked to go with FBI agents who were serving search warrants, Little said.

"The people in the Justice Department were opposed to him from the day he got appointed," said Little, a former federal prosecutor in San Francisco.

"Kevin Ryan's focus was to bring in real trial lawyers who roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty," said Anthony J. Brass, a former federal prosecutor under Ryan.

Other U.S. attorney's offices have experienced a similar exodus of experienced prosecutors, notably Los Angeles, where U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang resigned last year, a month before the firings. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has raised the issue of whether Yang was pushed out of office, something the Justice Department has denied.

Those knowledgeable about the situation insist that Yang left voluntarily, saying that she went to Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, a major law firm, to head the firm's crisis-management group with former Republican Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, for an annual salary of more than $1 million. Yang and her firm have denied that she was pushed out.

Even with the unrest, Ryan's support in Washington held during the first few months that planning for the ousters was underway. In an e-mail from D. Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, to Harriet Miers in March 2005, Ryan was in a category described as "strong U.S. Attorneys who have produced, managed well, and exhibited loyalty to the President and Attorney General." Other U.S. attorneys who were later fired were listed in a column recommending termination.

The following January, Sampson added Ryan to a list of federal prosecutors who might be removed based on performance evaluations. But he was left off later firing lists in September and November, e-mails show.

On Dec. 1, David Margolis, a career lawyer at the Justice Department and now an associate deputy attorney general, told Sampson and others in an e-mail that a federal judge, who was identified by lawyers in San Francisco as Marilyn Hall Patel, a President Carter appointee, was going to ask members of Congress to get her a copy of the blistering evaluations the department had done of Ryan earlier that year.

One of the negative evaluations contained comments by several lawyers who had left Ryan's office.

The next day, Michael Elston, a staff chief for a deputy attorney general, told Sampson by e-mail that protecting the confidentiality of the evaluation was "something we should consider fighting about. Any chance that we get candid information from such evaluations would be gone if we turned it over."

"This also may become unlikely if the list is expanded by one as we discussed earlier," Elston added, an allusion to Ryan's firing.

A couple of hours later, Sampson e-mailed back: "The list is expanded; still waiting for a green light from White House...."

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