Deputy Attorney General James Cole said today that he is resigning as the second-ranking U.S. law enforcement official.
Cole, the longest-serving deputy attorney general since the 1950s, said it was time to leave after almost four years in the “grind” of the job. He said in an interview that he wanted to give his replacement enough time -- there are two years left in President Barack Obama’s term -- to make a mark.
“It is all day long,” he said of the post, in which he guides government prosecutors through tough choices. “These are always problems that have no good solutions, so you get to pick from a menu of really bad options. You have to find the least bad one.”
Among the leading candidates to take Cole’s job are two prosecutors from outside the nation’s capital: U.S. Attorneys Loretta E. Lynch of the Eastern District of New York, and Sally Q. Yates of the Northern District of Georgia, said two Obama administration officials who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
Cole’s decision means that Obama will be replacing the department’s top management. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Sept. 25 that he’s leaving as soon as a replacement is confirmed by the Senate. The department’s No. 3 official, Tony West, recently departed to join PepsiCo Inc. as its general counsel. Cole said he plans to depart by the end of the year.
Lynch also has been mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Holder. The leading candidates for the top Justice job are former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, according to people familiar with the process.
The White House said this week that Obama won’t nominate Holder’s successor until after the Nov. 4 mid-term elections.
Holder today praised Cole as his “indispensable partner” since taking the deputy’s job in January 2011. “Jim’s leadership and ingenuity have been critical in attaining historic results on behalf of the American people,” Holder said in a statement.
Cole, 62, said he hasn’t decided what he will do next.
Among his top accomplishments, he said, was shepherding policies that reduce prison time for non-violent drug offenders, thus reducing the U.S. prison population.
His proudest moment, he said, came when the Justice Department announced early in his tenure that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court. The 1996 law, which denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples, was struck down by the Supreme Court in June.
“That was the next big civil rights issue,” Cole said. “We crossed another civil rights barrier in this country that needed to be crossed.”
Cole said said the Justice Department during his time has held banks accountable for the 2008 financial crisis, although he and Holder have been criticized for not prosecuting individual executives. Since last fall, the department has rolled out a series of multibillion-dollar civil penalties against financial institutions culminating in Bank of America Corp.’s record $16.7 billion settlement in August.
“These resolutions have resulted in banks paying huge fines and altering their behavior,” he said.
Proving individual bankers broke the law was extremely difficult because it was hard to show criminal intent and because they may not have violated laws in effect at the time. “We are dealing with financial rocket science,” he said.
Cole took a leading role in investigating and prosecuting Swiss banks for violating U.S. tax laws. In May, Credit Suisse Group AG pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $2.6 billion penalty for helping Americans cheat on their taxes. “We changed the way Swiss banks do business,” Cole said.
Cole also was a key player in the Obama administration’s crackdown on journalists and whistle-blowers. Holder last year identified Cole as the Justice Department officer who approved the secret subpoena of Associated Press telephone records.
Cole was a Justice Department official for 13 years before entering law private practice in 1992. Senate Republicans sought to block his return as deputy attorney general, in part because of the role he played as a private attorney monitoring insurer American International Group Inc. prior to its near collapse and 2008 government bailout.
AIG brought on Cole to oversee parts of its operations as an independent consultant starting in 2005 after the insurer agreed to pay $126 million to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission allegations that it helped clients inflate profits.
Obama went around the Senate Republicans by appointing Cole to his current post during a congressional recess and he took office in January, 2011. He was confirmed by the Senate later that year.
In the interview, Cole said testifying before Congress was among the things he won’t miss.
“You are sitting there for four or five hours; you can’t eat; you can’t go to the bathroom, and you keep getting asked the same question over and over again,” he said. “There was the answer that went through my head, and the answer I gave. And they were not always the same.”
Cole’s successor probably will serve in an acting capacity at first, to learn the ropes while Holder is still in the top spot. After a new attorney general is confirmed, the deputy would enter the Senate confirmation process, the officials said.