Crime - Sacto 911

Benjamin Wagner reflects on his tenure as U.S. attorney in Sacramento

Charles “Chuck” Stevens, as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, once remarked that he so highly valued the work of Benjamin Wagner that he would like to clone the assistant U.S. attorney.

Wagner achieved many things in his tenure as a federal prosecutor, including 6 1/2 years as U.S. attorney, but being cloned was not one of them.

The end of April marked his last day as the chief federal law enforcement official in the sprawling Sacramento-based district that stretches over 34 of California’s 58 counties from the Tehachapis to the Oregon border. He fashioned an enviable legacy.

“I hate to leave,” he said somewhat wistfully during a 90-minute interview in the last week he spent in his office on the 10th floor of the federal courthouse. “But, I took the job knowing it comes to an end. I love the work and the people in this office, but it is the logical time.”

Wagner, who grew up in Brooklyn, had only heard of Sacramento when he decided in 1992 to apply for an opening in the office. He was seeking refuge from a prestigious New York City law firm where for five years he toiled on corporate transactional matters, and then on a variety of civil cases in the litigation unit.

“Not very stimulating,” was his dry summary. Two friends periodically regaled him with accounts of their adventures as lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“There was a rather sharp contrast,” he said of his and their jobs. “They were working with the FBI chasing bank robbers and obtaining search warrants. It was appealing, and so was the public service aspect.”

So, Wagner and his wife, Hyla Wagner, who he met while both were in law school at New York University, packed their bags and headed west, where he took a 50 percent cut in pay.

“I am grateful I landed here sort of out of left field and put down some deep roots,” he said. “It’s been the most satisfying time of my life.”

Wagner “had the complete package of skills and personal attributes of an ideal federal prosecutor,” Stevens said in an email. “He was tough but fair, exceptional both in court and on paper, totally committed to the mission, hardworking and productive, an excellent ambassador for the office.

“Ben has used this rare combination of skills and attributes to solidify and enhance the office’s reputation as one of the premier U.S. attorney’s offices in the country,” said Stevens, now a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in the firm’s San Francisco office.

The nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys are expected to submit their resignations when a new president takes office. Wagner was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. He is held in high esteem by those at “Main Justice” in Washington, D.C., and they would rather he stay on until the end of the year, but he wants an unhurried job hunt and time with his family this summer.

“I made the decision sometime ago not to start looking for a job until I was done here, to avoid the distraction from the job at hand and to avoid any potential conflicts,” he said.

On May 1, Wagner’s chief assistant, Phillip Talbert, became acting U.S. attorney to lead the office until a permanent successor is appointed, almost certainly next year.

At 56, Wagner’s lanky frame and youthful countenance show little change from the day he arrived 24 years ago. He never loses control but can get very firm very fast. He’s able to keep his voice at a consistently even decibel level both in and out of court.

Throughout the interview, he obviously was enjoying the talk of his time as the person in charge, and of the 17-plus years before as a line prosecutor and supervisor. Wagner repeatedly credited others in the office for its achievements while he was U.S. attorney.

During his tenure as the boss, the office expanded its prosecution of financial and health care frauds, black-market trading in firearms, human trafficking and child exploitation. In the never-ending war on drugs, the office focused on high-level and violent offenders, and sought more lenient punishment for lower-level peddlers of poison.

He led an all-out blitz by his office, the FBI and the IRS against complex mortgage frauds, resulting in the conviction of nearly 300 defendants who fleeced millions of dollars from homeowners, some of whom lost their life savings.

He worked tirelessly to squeeze enough money out of those in Washington who hold the purse strings to increase by more than 12 percent the number of assistant U.S. attorneys in the district. He established a national security section in the office, created a civil rights/human trafficking working group, expanded the white-collar unit at the office’s Fresno division, and opened a new branch office in Bakersfield, an accomplishment that “literally took an act of Congress,” Wagner noted with relish.

Only when he spoke of the civil litigation pursued under his direction against timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries did his mood darken. The government sought reimbursement of damages and costs incurred from the 2007 Moonlight Fire, which burned approximately 45,000 acres in two national forests. The cause, Wagner’s office claimed, was a bulldozer being operated by an employee of a Sierra Pacific subcontractor. The company has bitterly denied the scenario, claiming the prosecutors were just looking for a deep pocket to hang it on.

The dislike the parties and attorneys have for one another hangs over the case like a dark cloud.

“I was appalled by the tactics of the Downey Brand firm (Sierra Pacific’s lawyers) in the Moonlight Fire litigation,” Wagner said. “It adopted as a strategy attacking the integrity of its opponents rather than litigating it on the merits. There is no room for the kind of personal attacks it engaged in.”

The defense lawyers “have tried to ruin people’s careers as a tactic,” Wagner said. “It’s troubling.”

Bill Warne, the Downey Brand partner who leads the defense for Sierra Pacific, responded that “Mr. Wagner cannot be serious.’

“Downey Brand and two other fine Sacramento law firms defended the Moonlight Fire action based solely on the facts. That those facts reflect so poorly on certain investigators and prosecutors was not a strategy, but a reality of the cards our clients were dealt. A Superior Court judge (in a related lawsuit) agreed, finding the Moonlight Fire matter ‘corrupt and tainted,’ ” he said.

“The Moonlight Fire action exemplifies why Americans have become increasingly distrustful of their government,” Warne continued. “When prosecutors act abusively, Americans can only hope that those in the crosshairs of such conduct will work to expose it.”

Before ascending to the top spot in the U.S. attorney’s office, Wagner handled some significant and high-profile criminal cases, including the prosecution of Blue Shield of California for obstructing an audit; leaders of an international money-laundering and tax-evasion organization; two corrupt State Department employees and several others in a scheme to obtain visas with bribes; two Shasta County brothers whose hate drove them to torch three Sacramento synagogues; various political figures from San Joaquin County ensnared in bribery and public corruption; three lawyers and two interpreters working a massive asylum fraud; and two cross burnings.

Wagner refers to his years in the office as “the experience of a lifetime,” but says, “I have lots of miles left in the tank. I’m not ready to mail it in.”

He will be looking for a position at a firm helping international companies ensure compliance with the laws and regulations that govern their businesses.

“This is a relatively new area, but it’s growing, and I think my experience makes me suited for it,” he said. “The laws are complex and fluid, and there is a lot more cooperation now between foreign governments and the Justice Department.”

First, though, he’s going to Europe with his family. He will bicycle with his wife and their three children from Prague – the capital of the Czech Republic – to Dresden, Germany. The family will then spend some time in Berlin.

“It should be fun,” he said. “Biking is something we’ve always enjoyed doing together.”

He loves visiting other countries and has lived an international existence since childhood. He traveled with his parents when his father was an official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid, and then later, when his father headed JPMorgan’s international finance and development operations.

“It wasn’t unusual to have foreign finance ministers and bankers at the dinner table,” he recalled.

Except for eighth and ninth grades in Beirut, Wagner’s K-12 schooling was in Brooklyn, where the family had a home in a diverse neighborhood.

Throughout his life, he has traveled abroad at every opportunity.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1982, Wagner spent a year in South Africa working for a conservation institute. He recalled that while posted in a rural area he said some things that were interpreted as critical of apartheid, then South Africa’s system of racial segregation.

“The next morning the institute got a call to get me out of there, and I was reassigned to a location where there were other loudmouths and rabble rousers,” he remembered with a chuckle.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189