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The U.S. Justice Department is taking an unusual step in trying to evaluate criticisms of U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan’s management style. This week, eight officials from the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. attorney’s office will be in San Francisco to interview current and former assistant U.S. attorneys, said several lawyers slated to be interviewed. Three of those lawyers who received calls from Virginia last week said they were told the probe was initiated by a top-level official. “The caller indicated it had been ordered by the DAG,” said one lawyer. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty is the top-ranking official after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. A Justice Department spokesman did not return a call by press time. Ryan’s management has been questioned almost since he took office in 2004, after which a string of disgruntled assistants left. As the departures continued, Ryan insisted he was doing an effective job, pursuing high-profile cases like the ongoing stock options backdating probe while also focusing on terrorism and gang crime. But early this year, a routine audit of the office � called an EARS review, since it’s conducted every three years by the Justice Department’s Evaluation and Review Staff � delivered Ryan and his managers a harsh assessment. While they didn’t criticize the office’s handling of cases, reviewers told Ryan and top management at a March 31 meeting that his staff perceives him as unapproachable and unable to gain the confidence of his subordinates, resulting in low morale. Under the EARS process, Ryan had the opportunity to contest the findings. And he did � vigorously, according to sources with knowledge of the process. The negative review, Ryan’s vehement response, plus a letter Assistant U.S. Attorney George Bevan Jr. sent earlier this year requesting that auditors interview departed assistants, have apparently prompted a deeper investigation. The further inquiry seems likely to provide some satisfaction to both the disgruntled current and former staffers and office management. Critics have long wanted reviewers to speak with departed assistants, while office management will get a second chance after the bitter initial review. A spokesman for Ryan’s office wouldn’t say Friday who in the office was being interviewed, or whether the follow-up inquiry was out of the ordinary. “It’s part of an ongoing evaluation process, and we look forward to the opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue and receive useful input from the team,” Luke Macaulay said. The inquiry comes at a strange time for Ryan: He has been a visible public presence in recent months due to his office’s involvement in investigating the ongoing stock options backdating scandal, which has resulted in better press in general and a quieting of the criticism that he wasn’t pursuing enough securities cases. Criticism of Ryan by assistants � and at least one judge who contacted the deputy attorney general’s office � has fallen off over the last 18 months or so, since the time many alienated prosecutors left. Their complaints were apparently reified, though, by the EARS audit. Justice Department veterans say it’s rare for an EARS review to produce serious consequences for a U.S. attorney � but that it’s even more rare for a secondary audit to be conducted. However, Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law and a former associate deputy attorney general, cautioned against assuming the review will have serious consequences. “The deputy’s office makes lots of informal calls,” he said. “Part of their job is to manage problems in the U.S. attorney’s offices.”

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