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It’s back to the future for the Northern District U.S. attorney’s office. On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan installed three veterans — whose prosecutorial experience averages more than 25 years — in key positions in his office, including one to head a new anti-terrorism unit. The moves signal Ryan’s priorities — terrorism and drugs — and should help allay fears since Ryan is new to federal court. “Terrorism is the No. 1 priority of the Department of Justice and it is the No. 1 priority of the U.S. attorney’s office,” Ryan said. Charles “Ben” Burch will be chief of the criminal division, a position he held in the mid-’90s. Burch has been a prosecutor in the Northern District since 1979. Michael Nerney, a prosecutor since 1971, will head the new anti-terrorism unit. He won a conviction of Larry Layton for the 1978 murder of Congressman Leo Ryan at Jonestown, Guyana, and was a trusted lieutenant of former U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello. Jeffrey Cole will head the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, or OCDETF. Ryan said OCDETF will now be the primary unit for all drug cases — in effect eliminating the need for a narcotics chief. Cole has been a prosecutor since 1980. “Jeff Cole will be responsible for all narcotics-related duties in this office with an emphasis on OCDETF-related cases,” Ryan said. He also announced that Jonathan Howden will be deputy chief of OCDETF. The announcements were not a surprise to observers of the office, though some said they hoped Ryan would keep an eye on diversity in making future appointments. “I think going to people who have roots in the office and experience is a solid move. It anchors the office,” said Morrison & Foerster partner Cedric Chao, a former federal prosecutor. Several key positions remain to be filled, including appellate chief and securities fraud chief, as well as Ryan’s first assistant. Ryan said the office’s ballyhooed CHIP (Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property) unit will remain intact. Several sources say Ryan intended to bring in attorney Michael Lempres as his first assistant. Lempres is a Bay Area native who worked in the first President Bush’s Justice Department and, until a month ago, was general counsel of the Pacific Stock Exchange. “I’m not prepared to comment on that but I may be in a few days,” Ryan said. However, the same sources said the Justice Department has become interested in nabbing Lempres for itself. A spokesman for the stock exchange said Lempres left to pursue other opportunities. As a lawyer, Burch is almost universally praised. Supporters say he is even-tempered and is, within the office, the man junior prosecutors go to when they need help with their cases. “Ben could care less about the politics of a prosecution,” said Hastings College of the Law professor Rory Little, a former federal prosecutor. “Ben is head and shoulders above the pack�. The public couldn’t be better served.” “The appointment of Ben certainly brings both institutional knowledge and a bridge between the older generation and the newer generation of prosecutors,” said defense attorney Nanci Clarence of Clarence & Snell. That could be important since under former U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller III — mostly through attrition though sometimes with a helping hand — some longtime prosecutors left the office or saw their roles reduced. Mueller also secured new funding, resulting in several new hires. Ryan said the office has been allotted five new positions for the terrorism unit. But some wonder where it will find work, since the FBI’s focus is on preventing terrorism, rather than prosecuting it. “There are those of us in the legal community who wonder what those five positions will be used for,” Clarence said. But, she added, it is almost certain there is more going on in that regard than the public knows. Little agreed. “They’re going to do a lot of stuff that isn’t going to hit the public eye. So the biggest question is, how do you measure success?” he said. “From our perspective,” said FBI spokesman Andrew Black, “having a counter-terrorism unit set up in the U.S. attorney’s office is a plus for us, in that our agents can get immediate advice and consultation with someone who’s familiar with those laws.” Ryan stressed that preventing further attacks is the foremost priority of any federal law enforcement agency these days. “We are going to work hand in hand with the FBI and other agencies,” Ryan said. “Right now the focus is prevention but we will segue into potential prosecutions” in an effort to prevent a terrorist attack here. Gone now is much of Mueller’s leadership. Former appellate chief J. Douglas Wilson and first assistant Beth McGarry are in Washington, D.C. Former securities fraud chief Leslie Caldwell now heads the Justice Department’s investigation into the collapse of Enron Corp. Former criminal chief and interim U.S. Attorney David Shapiro was rumored to be reuniting with Mueller at the FBI, but left a message Wednesday saying he decided against it and has no intention of moving. Few expect him to stay in the office, however. Clarence said she would like to see Ryan appoint women to key positions. Martha Boersch and Hannah Horsley currently head the securities fraud and appellate units, respectively, on an interim basis.

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