Prosecutor heading BALCO probe agrees to step down

SAN FRANCISCO -- The federal prosecutor who has led the
high-profile probe into athlete steroid abuse announced he was
stepping down, and critics alleged political pressure from the Bush
administration was pushing him and others out of their jobs.

"The Bush administration is pushing out U.S. attorneys from across the country under the cloak of secrecy and then appointing indefinite replacements."
-- Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Kevin Ryan, U.S. attorney for California's Northern District,
has headed the investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory
Co-Operative, the Burlingame supplements lab at the center of the
doping scandal that has touched some of professional sports' biggest stars.

U.S. attorney spokesman Luke Macaulay said Tuesday that Ryan reached a "mutually agreeable decision with Washington" to step down. Macaulay added that Ryan "serves at the pleasure of the president" but declined to say whether President Bush had asked Ryan to resign.

When reached later Wednesday, Macaulay told ESPN.com's Mike Fish that although there is no timetable to name Ryan's successor, the BALCO investigation is expected to go forward.

"Who knows what a new U.S. attorney will bring, but there are a lot of people who have been working this case that are still going to be here," Macaulay said. "It is not going to just evaporate."

Ryan, who was appointed to his post in 2002, replacing now-FBI director Robert Mueller, did not give a date for his last day on the job.

"Ryan has been contemplating his next step since last July," Macaulay said. "We obviously had a lot of cases breaking at that time, including BALCO, stock options, economic espionage, a number of big cases flowing through. At that time, he wanted to get those cases on more solid footing before he departed."

The BALCO investigation has led to five guilty pleas, spurred
congressional hearings and cast suspicion on San Francisco Giants
slugger Barry Bonds. A federal grand jury is probing whether Bonds
lied to an earlier grand jury about whether he knowingly used
performance-enhancing substances.

Michael Rains, an attorney for Bonds, said Wednesday that he sees Ryan's imminent departure as a positive development in his client's case.

"I think if you get somebody in there who has got a sense of what they have done to try to develop a case against Barry, and they see all of the problems that [investigators] have created to try to prosecute Barry -- ethical problems themselves that will undoubtedly come out at trial -- I think a capable prosecutor is going to say, 'There is no way we are going to tarnish the image of this office with trying to prosecute Barry Bonds,' " Rains told Fish.

"When, in fact, if the prosecution is based on the fact that Barry should have told the truth to the grand jury -- well, maybe the government should have told the truth to Barry to start with. That is how the prosecution starts. So what they have done is created a nightmare for themselves … and I think another prosecutor will see that and tell [Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey] Nedrow it is time to throw in the towel."

Macaulay would not respond to Rains' comments.

Two San Francisco Chronicle reporters are facing jail for
refusing to tell prosecutors who leaked secret BALCO grand jury
testimony to them.

The 49-year-old Ryan is one of 11 top federal prosecutors who have resigned or
announced their resignations since an obscure provision in the USA
Patriot Act reauthorization last year enabled the U.S. attorney
general to appoint replacements without Senate confirmation. Carol
Lam, who headed California's Southern District, also announced
Tuesday she would be leaving.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, complained on the
Senate floor Tuesday that the White House is using the provision to
oust Ryan, Lam and other federal prosecutors and replace them with
Republican allies.

"The Bush administration is pushing out U.S. attorneys from
across the country under the cloak of secrecy and then appointing
indefinite replacements," Feinstein said.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales denied the claim, saying
administration officials "in no way politicize these decisions."

During his tenure, Ryan also oversaw prosecutions on stock
options fraud, with at least 106 companies facing scrutiny from the
Department of Justice or the Securities and Exchange Commission on
questions about the timing of options grants. Options give
recipients the right to buy stock at a fixed price, generally the
stocks' market price the day of the grant. The inquiries are
studying whether grants were "backdated" to coincide with low
stock prices, maximizing the holders' potential for profit.

Criticism of Ryan, who oversees a staff of 110 lawyers in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, mostly has focused on his administration of
the office. Last year, a Justice Department audit reportedly
questioned Ryan's management and rated staff morale as low.

Mike Fish is ESPN.com's investigative reporter. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.