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Two longtime federal prosecutors, Ross Nadel and Jonathan Howden, are leaving the Northern District U.S. attorney’s office to take advantage of an early retirement offered by the U.S. Department of Justice. Their exit, combined with the recent departure of Charles “Ben” Burch, who became a judge in Contra Costa County, means the Northern District is losing more than 70 years of experience. Younger attorneys say they depend on the three men — all of whom have served as supervisors — for their institutional knowledge and judgment in cases. Howden is head of the organized crime drug enforcement taskforce. Nadel was criminal chief until September, when he stepped down to become a line assistant in San Jose. “It’s devastating,” said one Northern District prosecutor who asked to remain anonymous. “I just felt it literally as a physical blow.” Nadel, Howden and Burch are “go-to” people whom newbies and even 10-year veterans relied upon to help them with cases. “Instead of spending four hours researching [an issue], you just go to one of them,” said the prosecutor. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said many highly experienced prosecutors remain with the office, adding, “I am confident that the exceptional work of the office will continue.” Howden joined the office in 1986 after spending several years in the DOJ’s San Francisco antitrust division. He’s done a variety of cases since then, including the recent successful prosecution of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. “I still think that it’s the greatest job in the world,” Howden said Tuesday. “I’m going to miss it a lot.” But early retirement “made sense for a lot of reasons,” he said. He’s exploring “all kinds of possibilities” of what to do next. Nadel, 53, started his career as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of California before joining the Northern District in 1982. He has supervised several units, including white-collar, major crimes, organized crime and drug enforcement, and also, under former U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller III, started the nation’s first computer hacking and intellectual property (CHIP) unit. A former colleague once called Nadel the office’s Swiss Army knife. Nadel declined to discuss why he decided to take the retirement offer. He said he’s going to take some time after leaving the office and then decide what he would like to do next. Although colleagues will miss their advice, attrition is a fact of life at U.S. attorney’s offices. Former federal prosecutors say lawyers should actively be persuaded to leave the government after a while in order to give younger, more energetic attorneys a shot. “It kind of encourages the next level to step up,” said Joseph Russoniello, who served as Northern District U.S. attorney from 1982 to 1990. He’s now dean of San Francisco Law School and senior counsel at Cooley Godward. David Shapiro, the former interim U.S. attorney, agreed with Russoniello, adding, “You hope, of course, that there are other people in the office” who can fill the void. Many U.S. attorneys — and other government lawyers, including federal defenders — have an “up or out” policy of pushing people to take on more difficult assignments. “Arguably, one of the worst things that ever happened was civil service protection” for assistant U.S. attorneys, said Rory Little, a former Northern District prosecutor who is now a professor at Hastings College of the Law. “The energy level you need to be an effective prosecutor is a lot. It’s easy to coast as a U.S. attorney.” Little and Russoniello agree that the best situation is to have a lot of younger attorneys who are well supervised by a handful of veterans. “But you don’t need 20 Ben [Burches],” Little said. The office has recently brought in four new lawyers, including one 18-year veteran, said spokesman Luke Macaulay. If they want it, Nadel and Howden should have no trouble finding work. In recent months, other high-profile prosecutors have left government service to anchor big firms’ local white-collar defense practices. Russoniello said some prosecutors hang around too long. “In order to maximize their marketability,” people should ideally stay about seven to eight years, he said. “What you see is that when the government offers incentives, it’s a spur to people who have been looking or should have been looking,” Russoniello said. The DOJ offered the early retirement package two weeks ago to about 300 lawyers and support staff across the U.S. Only employees who are part of an older pension system — more recent hires are on a 401(k) plan — could take part. Anyone interested had two weeks to respond. Howden, Nadel and Burch — who was already on his way out — are the only local attorneys who accepted the offer. Several support personnel are also taking it. Today is their last day at work.

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