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Short tenure, no regrets

In two years, John Wood left mark in Kansas City

John Wood has the distinction of being the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri who wasn’t touched by the national attorney firing scandal.

Todd Graves, who left the office in March 2006, later revealed that he had been forced out over his refusal to prosecute a voter fraud case. Graves’ interim successor, Bradley Schlozman, brought the voter-fraud indictments in the case shortly before the 2006 election and was summoned to testify before Congress about alleged political motivations for doing so.

The politically motivated firings of nine U.S. attorneys, including Graves, eventually led to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ resignation in 2007.

Wood’s retirement, effective today, will open the door to a fourth U.S. attorney in Kansas City in three years.

But Wood says not to confuse turnover with turmoil. Sitting in his fifth floor office in the Charles Evans Whittaker Federal Courthouse this week, Wood said the Western District has gone quietly about the business of prosecuting its cases.

As for news of the scandal, “I was like everybody else, reading about it on the Internet.”

“It didn’t really affect what we did day to day,” he said.

Those who continue to work in the office say that while they will miss Wood’s leadership, the transition to his yet-unnamed successor won’t necessarily be difficult. Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Nelson, who has worked at the office since October 2004, noted that only the U.S. attorney is a political appointee. The other 68 attorneys are career employees.

“Our cases are the same, even if we’re a headless horseman,” he said.

Despite Wood’s short tenure – he was appointed in April 2007 – he’s overseen a number of very large cases, ranging from grisly criminal prosecutions to sweeping mortgage fraud and cases. Wood also reorganized the office to better deal with white collar crime and terrorism-related investigations, subjects likely to get attention no matter who is in the White House.

“I think the office is well positioned to handle those kinds of investigations,” he said.

Wood had few illusions going into the job that he would be in Kansas City for the long haul. Like all U.S. attorneys he was a political appointee, and whoever won the 2008 election was almost certain to replace most of the appointees of President George W. Bush.

Although a St. Louis-area native, he never even moved his family here from Washington, flying back on weekends to see his wife, Julie Myers Wood, and their now 2-year-old son. Myers Wood runs Immigration and Customs Solutions, a consulting and auditing firm.

Prior to coming to Kansas City, Wood was chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Before that, he held positions in the Office of Management and Budget under former U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft. He joined the Bush administration in 2001 after working for Kirkland & Ellis’ Washington office.

Wood now returns full time to Washington. He will be a partner in the New York-based firm of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, dealing with matters relating to the Justice Department, as well as financial issues and commercial litigation.

He said he also plans to work with clients in the Midwest. Hughes Hubbard, most notable for its current defense work on behalf of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and IndyMac, has been involved in a few cases in the Kansas City area, including the recent Westar fraud case in the District of Kansas.

Wood said that although “billing by the hour will be a big switch,” building a case in the private sector is similar in many ways to running a prosecutorial investigation, and with the turmoil in the financial sector and the government efforts to stem the crisis, there should be plenty of work.

“The legal practice is vibrant in Washington,” he said. “Washington is really going to be the center of what’s going on.”

Wood has had his own dealings with white collar crime, most notably his personal prosecution of American-Italian Pasta Co., the largest corporate fraud investigation in the history of the Western District. The case led to heavy fines and guilty pleas from some of the company’s top executives.

Wood said such cases require significant times and resources, noting that the American-Italian case yielded about 1 million pages of documents.

“They’re very complex, you’re dealing with very smart people and the volume of data is enormous,” he said.

Nelson, the assistant U.S. attorney, said it was nice to deal with a leader who was also a “working attorney.”

“John was much more hands-on with cases than U.S. attorneys in some districts,” he said.

Other major cases concluded under Wood’s watch include that of Lisa Montgomery, whom federal prosecutors convinced a jury to give the death penalty for killing a northwestern Missouri woman and cutting her unborn baby from her womb. Wood also oversaw a $60 million civil settlement against Cox Medical Centers in Springfield over Medicaid fraud and indictments in a $12.6 million mortgage fraud scheme involving 25 properties in Lee’s Summit and Raymore.

Wood says a number of crimes his office has prosecuted have a global element that is the hallmark of crime in the 21st century. For example, Wood’s office indicted the Columbia-based Islamic-American Relief Agency last year for allegedly sending money to Pakistan-based terrorists. The U.S. attorney also indicted two Chinese companies for allegedly exporting tainted pet food to the United States. Although it was produced overseas and sold by a Nevada-based corporation, it was imported through Kansas City.

“[Crime] is a global problem, and we need to deal with it that way,” he said.

It’s unclear when the Justice Department will name Wood’s permanent successor. Acting leadership of the office would likely fall to Matt Whitworth, the first assistant U.S. attorney in the office.