Nicola T. Hanna, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, will step down this week from the helm of the federal prosecutor’s office in Los Angeles, where for three years he has overseen the 280 lawyers who prosecute criminal violations of federal law, represent the United States in civil disputes and handle matters of national security in a seven-county district of 20 million people.
Hanna, who was appointed to the post on an interim basis in January 2018 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate three months later, submitted his resignation Monday to President Trump and acting Atty. Gen. Jeffrey A. Rosen. Hanna’s last day in office is Friday, after which he plans to return to the private sector. First Assistant U.S. Atty. Tracy L. Wilkison will fill the post in an acting capacity.
“This was an opportunity to serve the public like no other,” Hanna said in an interview.
Hanna, 59, had worked in the 1990s as a line prosecutor in U.S. attorney’s offices in Los Angeles and San Diego before entering private practice.
When he left a partnership at a top-flight law firm to lead the Los Angeles office in 2018, he found it had been remade by the Sept. 11 attacks and what he called the “internationalization” of crime. The office had a national security division, prosecutors and agents were trying to fend off cyberattacks by foreign actors, and the proceeds of complex frauds were increasingly being spirited overseas.
“So much of the work now is international in scope,” Hanna said.
After taking office, Hanna set its priorities as major cybercrimes, including dark web marketplaces; peddlers of synthetic opioids that cause fatal overdoses; and public corruption.
“Public corruption was one of my top priorities,” he said. “That’s where we bring unique capabilities, where we can go after people who are basically selling their office.”
After a years-long investigation that burrowed into the sordid interplay between elected leaders, developers and lobbyists in Los Angeles City Hall, Councilmen Jose Huizar and Mitchell Englander were charged last year, along with a host of others who include a deputy mayor and a council aide.
Another priority was trying to rein in fatal overdoses.
“If you had a friend or a sibling who died, nothing really happened,” Hanna said.
Prosecutors and agents began focusing on the dealers who were selling lethal doses — typically fentanyl or other drugs laced with the powerful synthetic opioid, often without the user’s knowledge.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles have charged about a dozen people with supplying drugs that led to fatal overdoses.
Among them are Ed Buck, accused of providing lethal doses of methamphetamine to two men who died in his West Hollywood apartment, and Cameron James Pettit, who was charged with selling counterfeit oxycodone pills laced with fentanyl to Mac Miller two days before the rapper overdosed and died.
Many of the cases filed during Hanna’s tenure have commanded headlines — the cascade of indictments and guilty pleas that shook L.A. City Hall, charges against a North Korean hacker implicated in the brazen attack on Sony Pictures, the arrests of dozens of MS-13 gang members charged with dismemberments in the Angeles National Forest — but one less publicized case, Hanna said, stands out in his memory.
In April 2015, Ali F. Elmezayen drove his car off of a wharf in San Pedro. Elmezayen swam out of the window of the sinking car; his wife, who didn’t know how to swim, survived after a fisherman threw her a flotation device. Elmezayen’s two sons, ages 13 and 8 and both severely autistic, were strapped into the car and drowned.
Elmezayen had taken out millions of dollars in life and accidental death insurance policies on his family, investigators learned. He collected $260,000 after his sons’ deaths, spending some of the money on a boat and real estate in Egypt.
“He’d essentially gotten away with it until some young [assistant U.S. attorneys] decided to do some follow-up investigation,” Hanna said.
Federal prosecutors charged Elmezayen in 2018 with fraud, money laundering and identity theft. Elmezayen was convicted at trial and is awaiting sentencing. County prosecutors have since charged Elmezayen with his sons’ murders.
Hanna’s office has also brought a manslaughter case against the captain of the dive boat Conception, which burned to the waterline off Santa Barbara with 33 passengers below deck. All of the passengers and one crew member were killed.
“It took time to do it,” Hanna said of the investigation, which spanned 15 months before the captain, Jerry Boylan, was indicted. “It’s complicated, it’s tragic and it’s sad.”
Hanna sees the office continuing to place an emphasis on investigating money laundering, for which Los Angeles remains a hub. A new task force was set up several months ago, he said, to target not only drug traffickers — the traditional perpetrators of international money laundering — but “the fraudsters, the scammers, who get their money out of the country the same way.”
Hanna said it remains to be seen how the U.S. attorney’s office will figure into the changes underway at the L.A. County prosecutor’s office, where the new district attorney, George Gascón, has vowed to reduce the number of people his deputies send to prison, and for how long.
Hanna’s spokesman, by contrast, noted in a statement announcing his resignation that before the COVID-19 pandemic brought court proceedings to a near halt, the federal prosecutor’s office in Los Angeles had increased the number of defendants it charged by 41% compared with 2017.
Going forward, Hanna said he expected local law enforcement agencies to bring more cases to federal prosecutors for filing consideration, particularly investigators who work with federal agents on task forces that probe human trafficking, gun running and gangs.
But he also noted the office has 200 lawyers handling all criminal and national security violations of federal law in a seven-county jurisdiction with 20 million residents.
“We can’t be the D.A.,” he said. “We can’t take on all cases.”
Hanna said the federal prosecutor’s role should be a “value-add” with city and county law enforcement, stepping in to go after “the most violent, the most dangerous, the ones perpetrating the most complex schemes that require a long-term investigation where local resources might not be enough.”