Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer is stepping down as head of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, after holding the post for a record four years, according to several news accounts.
Coincidentally, Breuer’s impending departure comes after “Frontline” broadcast a harshly critical report Tuesday night. The PBS program, entitled “The Untouchables,” was full of assertions that under Breuer the DOJ went after small fish in the mortgage-market abuses that nearly paralyzed the country’s financial system, while the big fish swam free.
Apart from the financial crisis, Breuer came under intense criticism for other episodes, perhaps most notably the “Fast and Furious” operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The operation was supposed to allow guns to fall into the hands of criminals along the United States-Mexico border so they could be tracked to higher-ups in the deadly drug-trafficking business. The effort backfired badly, as the authorities were unable to account for many weapons — two of which were found at the scene of a border shootout in which Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010.
The Washington Post reported Breuer’s expected resignation, citing several people familiar with the unfolding story. The Post noted that, despite the attacks on him, “Breuer is widely credited with aggressively going after white-collar crime in the aftermath of the crisis. He also stepped up the division’s involvement in money-laundering cases, launching a series of criminal investigations that have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements.”
The Post said neither Breuer himself nor other officials at DOJ would comment.
Although he has had his share of critics — no surprise, given his high-profile position — Breuer has emphasized repeatedly that he views the ongoing battle against worldwide corruption one of the big struggles at this moment in history, as Main Justice has reported. On that point, he has stressed enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and he has fended off efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and others to dilute the 1977 law.
In the “Frontline” report, Breuer defended his and his division’s performance, declaring that proving someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a courtroom can be a dicey enterprise — a fact of life that any prosecutor knows. Yet the program was devastating, in that it recalled a speech in which Breuer worried about the possible consequences on thousands of employees if big banks were prosecuted. Moreover, he talked of the difficulty of making cases against Wall Street — even though the “Frontline” program included numerous accounts by due diligence underwriters who helped those higher up the chain put together rickety mortgages.
Breuer’s powerful enemies on Capitol Hill included Rep. Darrell Issa of California, head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both Republicans were incensed by the failures in “Fast and Furious,” an operation that Attorney General Eric Holder himself eventually lamented. The lawmakers accused Breuer of being at the center of a “pass the buck” culture in which underlings shouldered blame that should have weighed on Breuer himself (see Main Justice’s report).
The article has been updated to note that Breuer is the longest-serving Assistant Attorney General in the history of the Department of Justice.