Garcia: Departure of federal prosecutor good news for gangs, bad for S.F. 

The media coverage of the abrupt resignation by U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan a few weeks ago generally focused on whether Ryan jumped or was pushed when he got to the windowsill.

And given that U.S. attorneys all over the country are suddenly leaving their posts as President Bush looks to fill plum patronage jobs before his term ends, perhaps that angle was appropriate.

For the record, Ryan insists he was already perched on the ledge when White House officials made any decision a fait accompli — a move that came some six months after Department of Justice officials encouraged him to stay.

"It’s time to move on,’’ he told me recently. "I’m ready to step out of the limelight and my family is thrilled about my decision.’’

Yet lost in Ryan’s case is how sad his departure is for The City, particularly because of his office’s efforts to help local law enforcement crack down on violent career criminals.

Most of the headlines Ryan received during his four and a half years as Northern California’s top federal prosecutor surrounded his handling of the BALCO steroids case, his office’s current investigation of stock options backdating and a few cases involving high-tech trade secret theft.

But Ryan’s impact here was felt most heavily in his decision to use federal racketeering and gun law statutes to go after known gang members, an intervention that helped San Francisco police make a serious dent in black-on-black killings. Police officials credit Ryan with filling the vacuum created by the District Attorney’s Office, whose decision not to tackle some major homicide cases often left them baffled and frustrated.

"His priorities were in sync with our priorities,’’ said Capt. Kevin Cashman, head of the Police Department’s homicide unit. "He used federal law to focus on the most violent crimes and he let people know it was not business as usual on the streets."

During Ryan’s reign, more than a dozen members of two of the most violent gangs in The City were sentenced for horrific crimes. Eight members of the Down Below Gang pleaded guilty last year to murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, as well as a host of other crimes — a case in which prosecutors used the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act. The RICO act was also used to go after members of the Page Street Mob for drug conspiracy and murder charges.

Ryan’s office was also credited with greatly reducing the number of homicides in largely black neighborhoods through the enforcement of federal "Trigger Lock’’ laws, which provides for prison terms of 10 years or longer for convicted felons who are caught with a gun. In 2005 alone, police referred more than 100 gun-related cases to federal prosecutors. And Ryan used federal grand juries to get indictments in a number of high-profile gang killings.

His ability to use federal laws to get some of San Francisco’s most notorious criminals behind bars once prompted Mayor Gavin Newsom to tell me: "Thank God for Kevin Ryan.’’

But the politics of San Francisco would halt Newsom for saying so directly to Ryan, because for a Democrat to compliment a Bush-appointed Republican would be to court partisan criticism. Indeed, Ryan was thrashed by many attorneys in his office — always anonymously — for his heavy-handed management style. Yet there’s little doubt that some of the critics were politically motivated, since Ryan vigorously carried out the Justice Department’s policies, including defense of the Patriot Act.

Ryan says he probably gave more pro-Patriot Act speeches than any other U.S. attorney. In San Francisco, that’s about as popular as a National Rifle Association rally.

"This office didn’t generally embrace the direction of the DOJ,’’ Ryan said. "But we don’t get to set the rules. In some ways I was probably a victim of my own single-mindedness.’’

Ryan, who served as a Superior Court judge here before Bush tapped him for the federal post, says he’s undecided about his next step. The 48-year-old graduate of the University of San Francisco law school told me he might consider going to work for a private firm or even act as a consultant.

But we can only hope that after Ryan leaves his office, his replacement takes the same tough stand in pursuing gun-toting, drug-running bad guys. Certainly that’s on the Police Department’s wish list.

"I was happy to be able to make a difference in San Francisco because I love this place,’’ he said. "It’s one of the most unique cities in the world.’’

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