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Lanny Breuer, Justice Dept.'s Criminal Division Chief, Says He Will Step Down

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the longest serving chief of the Justice Department's criminal division since the 1960s, says he will leave government service in March.

Breuer is announcing his departure a day after a federal judge in New Orleans accepted a guilty plea by BP in connection with the 2010 Gulf Oil spill, the biggest criminal investigation — and at $4 billion, the biggest criminal penalty — in Justice Department history.

"To have BP held to account for such a remarkable disaster and to plead guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, and violating the Clean Water Act and obstructing Congress, I think really is momentous," Breuer told NPR in an interview.

Breuer highlighted his work in stepped up enforcement of foreign bribery and bank secrecy statutes, as well as his prosecutions of drug cartel members who operate along the Southwest border.

But gun running into Mexico also sparked the biggest controversy in his tenure— a congressional investigation into a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sting known as Fast and Furious. ATF lost track of nearly 2,000 weapons, including two that wound up near the body of slain U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) said Breuer's resignation was "long overdue."

"Breuer was at the heart of several critical failures in Operation Fast and Furious: he knew about reckless tactics, failed to take seriously allegations that they were continuing, and only owned up to his failures once they were publicly exposed," Issa said.

For his part, Breuer pointed out he didn't know about misguided tactics in Fast and Furious. Instead, he said, he had uncovered evidence of problems with an earlier gun trafficking case, run during the Bush years. Breuer says a follow-up investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General "completely exonerated" him of the most serious allegations Issa levied.

Attorney General Eric Holder thanked Breuer for his "successful and aggressive" service in a written statement.

Yet in recent months, critics including former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Delaware) and onetime New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, have blasted the Obama Justice Department for failing to indict one major Wall Street banker over the mortgage crisis.

"This department has been incredibly aggressive in dealing with the issues of the financial crisis," Breuer told NPR. "Aggressive U.S. attorneys have looked at this. But time and again the career prosecutors have come back on those cases, on those securitization cases, and said we don't have a criminal case to be brought....My message to the American people is that this Justice Department calls it the way it sees it."

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