U.S. Atty. Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the highest-ranking federal prosecutor in Southern California, announced Thursday that he will step down from his post April 20.
Mayorkas, a Democrat, is one of 93 U.S. attorneys across the country, almost all of whom are being replaced by the new Republican administration.
The 41-year-old Mayorkas denied that his departure was hastened by his role in the recent presidential pardon controversy.
Mayorkas contacted the White House on behalf of Carlos Vignali Jr., a convicted cocaine dealer whose prison term was subsequently commuted by President Clinton. He later apologized, saying he was swayed by his compassion for Vignali's family.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced this week that nearly all U.S. attorneys in the country would be replaced by June during an orderly transition.
Mayorkas said that he chose the date of his departure and that the Vignali episode did not come up in his discussions with Justice Department officials about his departure.
He said he plans to explore opportunities in the private sector.
Mayorkas, a career prosecutor, was appointed U.S. attorney a little more than two years ago for a seven-county region stretching from Orange to San Luis Obispo. His staff of 239 lawyers constitutes the largest federal prosecutor's office in the country.
During his tenure, he formed a special section to prosecute hate crimes and put new emphasis on the prosecution of environmental crimes and consumer fraud.
Major actions on his watch included the prosecution of Buford O. Furrow Jr., who pleaded guilty to killing a Filipino American postal worker and shooting five people at a Jewish community center in the San Fernando Valley; the Casablanca drug money laundering case against three major Mexican banks and more than 100 individual defendants; and his use of federal racketeering statutes to prosecute members of the 18th Street gang and the Mexican Mafia.
In an e-mail message to his staff Thursday, Mayorkas said: "It has been my greatest privilege to work with you. I will forever cherish the time I have spent in this office. I thank you for making it such an honor."
Mayorkas had been considered a longshot choice when he was nominated to the post by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1998. At the time, Mayorkas headed the general crimes unit, where rookie federal prosecutors are trained. Many senior prosecutors favored Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard E. Drooyan. But Mayorkas had strong support from the ranks of younger staffers, many of whom he had trained.
During his earlier years in the office, Mayorkas specialized in prosecuting money laundering and securities and bank fraud cases.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Saunders said Thursday that Mayorkas was extremely well liked and well regarded as a prosecutor and as a supervisor, though he acknowledged there was lingering resentment among some old-guard staffers.
"The one thing everyone agreed on, though, was that Ali absolutely adored his job, both as a line prosecutor and as U.S. attorney."
Even before the transition to the new administration, nearly a third of the U.S. attorneys had already submitted their resignations in the expectation that they would be replaced by Republicans in keeping with long-standing political tradition.
Ashcroft's aides acknowledged that picking a replacement for Mayorkas presents an unusual problem because the senior senator from the president's party is traditionally allowed to make the selection.
In California, however, neither senator is a Republican, nor is the governor. Congressional Republicans--representing often diverse constituencies--may have difficulties reaching a consensus.
The Justice Department said that after the White House announces the selections for U.S. attorneys, Ashcroft will appoint interim prosecutors serving up to 120 days to head the offices while the nominations are pending in the Senate.
If the nominee is not confirmed within that time, the U.S. District Court has the authority to name a replacement.