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Hochul retirement decision creates buzz in legal community

William J. Hochul Jr. surprised much of Western New York on Wednesday when he announced plans to retire in three weeks as U.S. attorney.

After 30 years of prosecuting gangsters, drug dealers, and terrorist sympathizers, he says he is leaving government and heading into private practice without identifying any particular firm. The prosecutor who oversees federal law enforcement in New York’s 17 western counties said he simply wants to leave public service and pursue a new career. Hochul has served for six years, making him one of the longest-serving U.S. attorneys in the region’s history.

“I am definitely going into private life,” he said, adding that he intends to remain in Buffalo.

Several Buffalo attorneys said they knew Hochul was eventually planning to move on to other ventures, but all were surprised by the timing of Hochul’s announcement late on Wednesday afternoon.

“This really came out of the blue,” said veteran defense attorney Paul J. Cambria on Thursday. “I’ve got all kinds of people asking me, ‘What’s going on with this?’ I don’t know what to tell them.”

Dennis C. Vacco, the former U.S. attorney appointed by a Republican president who was one of Hochul’s first bosses, said Thursday, “I think Bill wants to go out on his own terms.

“His resignation takes effect on Oct. 28. I think he’s got his eyes on the political clock, and for reasons of his own, he wants this to take effect before the election. I could see Bill getting a job with a white-collar criminal defense law firm, or I could see him getting hired as the general counsel for a large, highly regulated company.”

Vacco added that he believes the career prosecutor wants to make his move before the national elections on Nov. 8.

Hochul discussed his decision with reporters for almost an hour Thursday in his downtown Buffalo office. “Just based on the track record of this office, where no one has ever been U.S. attorney this long, I’ve loved it,” he said.

Hochul said his departure has nothing to do with any pending investigation, including corruption charges involving state contractors and former members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration. Hochul’s wife, Kathy, is lieutenant governor of New York. “Not at all,” Hochul said when asked about any potential conflict he may face as husband of the state’s second-in-command.

The Buffalo News has reported that Hochul recused himself from the ongoing investigation of former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon because of his wife’s political connections.Both Vacco and Cambria said it has to be difficult and uncomfortable for William Hochul to stand on the sidelines while two major corruption investigations – the state contracting investigation and the Pigeon case – are handled in Buffalo by other prosecutors. The contracting investigation is headed by Preet Bhahara, the Manhattan U.S. attorney, even though much of the investigation has been conducted by Buffalo FBI agents.

“Even though he did the appropriate thing in recusing himself from the Pigeon case, it has to be very frustrating for Bill,” Vacco said. “He’s a very aggressive career prosecutor, and for Bill to sit on the sidelines while two major investigations are going on in his own backyard has to be very frustrating. I know I would feel that way.”

Kathy Hochul said she is proud of her husband’s efforts to combat violent street crime, the heroin epidemic and environmental crimes in Western New York.

“He has a track record of cleaning up crime, taking on government corruption and taking on cases nobody had the courage to take on before,” Kathy Hochul said.

Defense attorney Rodney O. Personius said Hochul was not always popular with defense lawyers because “he was an extremely ambitious and aggressive guy, within the limits of the law.” But Personius said he respects Hochul for his direct, hard-nosed approach to violent crime.

“He was a phenomenal courtroom prosecutor, the best I have ever seen,” Personius said.

While speaking with reporters Thursday, the departing U.S. attorney reminisced about myriad cases handled by his office over the years, ranging from gangster Donald “Sly” Green, to the Lackawanna Six, to the bombing, threats and acts of intimidation committed by some members of a Niagara Falls labor union. He seemed proudest of his efforts to rid Buffalo streets of violent gangs like the Seventh and 10th Street gangs.

“When you can have that kind of impact, it permits good people … to be free and have the ability to live, grow and work,” he said.

Hochul said his “strong recommendation” will be for his top assistant, J.P. Kennedy, to succeed him.


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