WASHINGTON (AP) — In a final response to his critics, the head of the Justice Department's criminal division defended his record on a pair of the defining issues of his four-year tenure — the absence of prosecutions against Wall Street executives and his conduct in the controversy over a botched arms-trafficking investigation in Arizona.
Lanny Breuer addressed the issues during an interview Tuesday in which he announced he is stepping down after running a Justice Department division with 440 attorneys, a $174 million annual budget and a mandate to bring wrongdoers to account in some of the nation's most high-profile criminal cases. His last day at the Justice Department will be March 1, and he said he has no immediate plans for his next career move.
The role of Wall Street firms in the nation's economic crisis, which stemmed from the collapse of the housing industry, triggered widespread public demands for their punishment as the country slid into the Great Recession and the painfully slow recovery that followed.
Breuer said the department has done its part by "very aggressively" investigating all aspects of the conduct of Wall Street firms for possible criminality.
"Not once in my four years did a career prosecutor come into my office ... and say, 'Lanny, we should bring a case' and I vetoed it," said Breuer. "These were not criminal cases that could be brought."
Breuer also pointed to Justice's attacks on financial fraud in other arenas.
Among them: The British bank HSBC, which agreed to pay $1.9 billion for helping Mexican drug traffickers, Iran and Libya to move money around the world. It was the largest penalty ever imposed on a bank.
In the HSBC case, the U.S. stopped short of charging executives, citing the bank's immediate, full cooperation and the damage that an assault on the giant company might cause on economies and people, including thousands who would lose jobs if the bank collapsed.
There were other major settlements. Barclays PLC and its subsidiaries paid about $453 million over charges that they tried to manipulate interest rates that affect how much people pay for loans to attend college or buy a house.
The settlement contained a legal mechanism called a deferred prosecution agreement, an in-between option to obtaining a conviction of a corporation or declining to prosecute altogether.
The department defended the agreement by saying that Barclays' conduct has resulted in a serious sanction including a public admission of its illegal acts.
On Tuesday, Breuer said that deferred prosecution agreements, "if done appropriately, can be the reason why a company transforms from being a lawbreaker ... to being a good corporate citizen."
On another front, some Republicans in Congress called for Breuer's resignation over Operation Fast and Furious, the gun-smuggling investigation that resulted in investigators losing track of hundreds of weapons that were later recovered at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S., including two guns found at the scene of the shooting of U.S. border agent Brian Terry.
Breuer was admonished by the attorney general and apologized for not informing his superiors once he learned in 2010 that a Justice Department investigation, called Operation Wide Receiver, during the George W. Bush administration relied on a controversial tactic known as gun-walking that federal agents later used in Operation Fast and Furious.
"Every single day for four years I've had to make dozens and dozens and dozens of decisions," said Breuer. "You're never going to hit a home run all the time and on that day I didn't do as good a job as I would have liked."
Breuer sidestepped a question about the handling of the Fast and Furious controversy by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose investigations brought the problems in the operation to light.
"This can be a tough town and a politicized town but at its core what matters more are the issues of making America safer," Breuer said.
An investigation by the Justice Department's inspector general found no evidence that Breuer was aware in 2009 or 2010 that federal firearms agents running Fast and Furious in Arizona were again trying to track firearms rather than interdict them.
In Fast and Furious, agents from Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives abandoned the agency's usual practice of intercepting all weapons they believed to be illicitly purchased, often as soon as they were taken out of gun shops. Instead, the goal of the gun-walking approach was to trail such weapons to high-level arms traffickers who long had eluded prosecution and to dismantle their networks.
In June, the Republican-run House voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over subpoenaed records that might explain what led the Justice Department to reverse course after initially denying that federal agents had used gun-walking in Fast and Furious. A lawsuit is pending as Justice and the House panel try to negotiate a resolution.