Lawyers in Washington for a couple of months now have been playing fortune teller, buzzing about the anticipated comings and goings among top attorneys in key slots throughout the Obama administration. This week's focus: Lanny Breuer.
It wasn't a secret that Breuer, one of the longest-serving leaders of the U.S. Justice Department's Criminal Division, was preparing to leave the department. That information picked up steam Wednesday afternoon when The Washington Post reported that Breuer's "days in office are winding down."
The Post, back in November, reported on rumors of Breuer's desire to move on, and The National Law Journal in December also noted that Breuer is expected to call it quits. (The NLJ mentioned a couple of potential contenders for his job, including Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and Jenny Durkan, the U.S. attorney in Seattle.)
The precise timing of Breuer's resignation, however, remains unknown. The Post yesterday said "it is not clear when Breuer intends to leave his post, nor what he plans to do once he departs." DOJ officials are not talking about Breuer's future. Breuer said in an interview late last year with The NLJ that he was planning to stick around for "a little while."
Breuer is a former partner at Covington & Burling in Washington, serving as co-chair of the firm's white collar defense and investigations practice. Naturally, as goes the Washington revolving door, the question has come up about whether he'll return to firm he left behind for DOJ. The official word from Covington this afternoon: no comment.
Bruce Baird, co-chair of Covington's white collar defense and investigations group, said today that "my bet is he'll go to a law firm and be a very successful practicing lawyer." Baird, who has remained in touch with Breuer since he left the firm, predicted that a number of firms will compete to have Breuer join the ranks.
Breuer was confirmed in early 2009 as the top attorney in the Criminal Division, overseeing an office with hundreds of lawyers who investigate and prosecute an array of crimes—from financial fraud and public corruption to drug trafficking and trade secret theft. Just to name of few areas of the law.
Breuer has called his post as assistant attorney general his "dream job." Wherever he goes, he's sure to tout the recent record-breaking deal with BP over its role in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster; stepped-up anti-foreign bribery enforcement; and asset forfeiture initiatives.
Not that it's been a smooth ride the past several years. Not even close. Republicans on Capitol Hill have assailed Breuer over the department's response to congressional demands for information about Operation Fast and Furious. That's the gun sting in which federal agents let guns flow into Mexico with the hope to build cases against the higher-ups in the world of firearms trafficking. Firearms linked to that operation are blamed on the murder of a border patrol agent in 2010.
In recent months, critics hammered Breuer—and DOJ at large—for the government's decision not to seek criminal indictments against major banks for violations of anti-money laundering controls. The public narrative of the criticism: DOJ is letting banks walk away from serious punishment.
In December, for instance, DOJ agreed to a deferred prosecution agreement with HSBC Holdings PLC, one of Europe's largest banks, for what Breuer called "stunning failures of oversight." The goal wasn't to bring down the bank, Breuer said in remarks after the announcement of the deal. Breuer called the deferred prosecution agreement a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the bank.
The widespread attention this week over Breuer's plans to leave DOJ followed Tuesday night's hour-long broadcast of a PBS Frontline piece, "The Untouchables," which criticized the department for the lack of criminal cases against Wall Street executives for their roles in the financial crisis. (Corporate Counsel, a sibling publication, has this piece on the Frontline investigation.)
Breuer rejected the notion that the department wasn't aggressively confronting financial fraud, arguing that the department has successfully built cases on charges prosecutors believed would stick.
"With respect to Wall Street cases, we looked at those as hard as we looked at any others, and when a case could be brought, we did," Breuer said, according to a Frontline transcript. "But when we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was criminal intent, then we have a constitutional duty not to bring those cases."
In the Frontline piece, Kevin Perkins, associate deputy director of the FBI, said he and Breuer have argued "back and forth" over whether certain cases should have moved forward as criminal prosecutions. Perkins said he was at times frustrated and disappointed. But he said he accepted, as a "professional," the final decision.
Breuer, responding to a question about whether Wall Street is getting a pass, had this to say on Frontline: "I understand the world is upset. And I'm upset. I get it. I work with career government people. They're my friends, and they're my colleagues. They have lost their 401(k)s. My own family has lost their 401(k)s. I get it and understand it."