Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer formally announced his exit as Criminal Division chief today, a move hastened by erroneous reports that he had already resigned because of a critical Frontline documentary on failures to prosecute top figures responsible for the financial crisis.
In a carefully rolled out media strategy, Breuer gave an interview to the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz for a story that was apparently embargoed until midnight today, given the 12:01 a.m time stamp on the story.
“I understand why people are upset,” Breuer told the Post of the lack of prosecutions of top Wall Street and mortgage executives. “But we have 94 U.S. attorneys and they don’t report to me. Not one of them determined that there was a criminal case to be had. These are very complicated cases and they were just simply, on the merits, not cases that could be brought criminally.”
That analysis is fair. But it didn’t keep Breuer from becoming the shooting target for everyone frustrated with the inability to hold the architects of the crisis accountable – titans of business who profited so handsomly as they wrecked the economy, none of them in prison.
While Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara - who also didn’t bring any cases against top financial crisis figures — got his picture on the cover of Time magazine and was lauded as the Sheriff of Wall Street, Breuer took nothing but fire, which was no doubt personally painful for him and demoralizing to the division.
That controversy – and the pseudo-manufactured one over the botched Fast and Furious gun investigation that caused Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to demand, unsuccessfully, Breuer’s resignation — overshadowed other accomplishments of the Criminal Division in the four years Breuer ran the place.
He’s overseen successful investigations of banks that manipulated a key lending benchmark, the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor. He’s pumped long-needed resources into going after money laundering as a primary offense, rather than the usual tag-along charges made in the past. He’s presided over huge successes going after the organized criminals who bilk the public Medicare and Medicaid programs of billions through fradulent billings.
He supervised the Deepwater Horizon Task Force after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and oil company BP was ordered to pay $4 billion in criminal fines and penalties after it pleaded guilty to 11 felony manslaughter charges, environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress.
He worked alongside U.S. Attorneys to indict the website Megaupload and the people behind it for intellectual property crimes in their distribution of copyrighted movies and other material.
And he’s continued to nurture strong enforcement of the anti-bribery Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a scourge of corporate America. Breuer was involved in a year-long series of meetings in 2012 with stakeholders to produce a much praised guide for companies to complying with the FCPA, produced with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Breuer, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on April 20, 2009, is believed to be the longest serving Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, at least in recent memory.
He came to the Justice Department in 2009 with the backing of then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, with whom he’d been through the fires of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s. Breuer then was a White House special counsel defending Clinton and Emanuel a top aide to Clinton, who was acquitted by the Senate of lying and obstruction of justice related to his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Even though Breuer went to work for Covington & Burling LLP, the same law firm as Attorney General Eric Holder, he wasn’t Holder’s pick for the job, and always seemed to be hanging a bit out there, apart from the rest of Holder’s tight-knit group.
His appointment drew internal Criminal Division grumbling in 2009 because he’d never been a federal prosecutor, though he did serve a stint early in his career in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
Then last week, the Washington Post reported that he was leaving the Justice Department – a vague story that didn’t seem newsworthy without specifics such as date of departure and where he was going (back to Covington, most likely – the partners have had discussions though no announcement has been forthcoming).
But the story sparked an avalanche of headlines on the Web suggesting he was resigning – or already had – because of the critical Frontline documentary, “The Untouchables,” about the lack of prosecutions of top executives in the financial crisis.
“It looks like Frontline struck a nerve,” said MSNBC host Ed Schulz on his evening show last Friday. “This documentary plays. Lanny Breuer resigns. I don’t know what the connection is.”
It wasn’t true. What was true is that Breuer, with a new term for the president, was at a natural departure point and had been looking around for his next move.
For the record, the CBS news show “60 Minutes” ran a similar hard-hitting feature in December 2011, and Breuer didn’t resign.
His colleagues heaped praise today on Breuer, who will step down on March 1.
“Lanny has led one of the most successful and aggressive criminal divisions in the history of the Department of Justice, accomplishing record penalties in corruption cases at home and abroad and dismantling major organized crime and health-care fraud networks around the country while also protecting the integrity of our banking systems and fighting financial fraud,” Holder said in a statement.
“Throughout his tenure, Lanny has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the mission of this Department and I want to thank him for his dedication and exceptional service,” Holder added.
Robert Khuzami, the outgoing enforcement director at the SEC, told the Post, “Lanny stands out as a colleague who gives whatever he can to get the job done. He has served in challenging times, but he never took his eye off the ball, which is to act in the public interest regardless of any pressure or personal consequences.”
As for his own feelings upon leaving, Breuer called serving as Criminal Division head “the greatest privilege of my professional life.”
In a statement, he added: “From my first day on this job, nearly four years ago, I have loved it, and I am so proud of what the Criminal Division has accomplished over the past four years. I have had no higher honor than to work alongside the talented and dedicated men and women of the Criminal Division, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to serve the American people together with them.”