Shifting priorities and personnel at the federal level could mean changes for one of Stanislaus County's highest-profile criminal cases.
Some say the federal racketeering case against Road Dog Cycle shop owner Robert C. Holloway could change course as the Obama administration retools prosecutorial priorities and installs new leadership among federal prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, a Bush appointee, charged Holloway and 11 other men last year with operating a chop shop, trafficking in stolen motorcycle parts and using violence to collect debts.
Scott stepped down in January. The Obama administration's pick to replace him, Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, is working his way through the Senate confirmation process.
On the short list with Wagner was defense attorney Anthony Capozzi, who represents Road Dog defendant Joseph Tyler. Capozzi said he couldn't comment, because he was considered for the job. Capozzi once worked as a federal prosecutor in the same Fresno office that's trying the Road Dog case.
Lead Holloway prosecutor Mark E. Cullers said a new boss in his office will have no effect on the case. Holloway's attorney, Bill Osterhoudt, said he didn't know what the switch would bring.
But others say new leadership could be a game changer.
"A new (U.S. attorney) may come in and say, 'What the hell are you doing? These are not our priorities,' " defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña said. "I think a new U.S. attorney might put the kibosh on the whole thing."
Carlton-Magaña has been following the Holloway case but does not represent any of the defendants.
Carlton-Magaña noted that the Obama administration has signaled new priorities. The Justice Department announced this week that federal prosecutors won't go after medical marijuana users in some states. That new policy has no bearing on the Holloway case, but it shows the influence of shifting political winds.
Carl Faller, a defense attorney representing Road Dog defendant Steven Johnson, said he's hopeful a new U.S. attorney will take a fresh look at the case and remove Johnson from the defendant's list.
General's case dropped
Prosecutors can change course, even in high-profile cases, Faller said. Prosecutors last month dropped all charges against Vang Pao, the Hmong general accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Laos. Pao was arrested in Fresno in 2007. The case drew national headlines.
"That makes me hopeful that there's a willingness to engage in meaningful re- examination of these cases and see if there are different decisions that need to be made," Faller said.
Others were more skeptical. Defense attorney Bob Forkner, who represents two defendants in the Road Dog case, said the government could have too much invested to walk away now, although he hopes that's what happens.
"They can't just throw the towel in," Forkner said. "They've committed millions of wasted taxpayer dollars to this case, money that could have been spent on gang shootings on the west side of Modesto instead of stolen Harley-Davidson parts."
Likewise, Paul Q. Goyette, the defense attorney who successfully represented former Stanislaus County sheriff's Capt. Raul DeLeon in a case related to the Road Dog investigation, doesn't believe a new U.S. attorney would do much to alter the prosecution.
"I suspect they'll let it go forward," Goyette said. "If (Holloway) gets convicted, (the new U.S. attorney) can take credit for it. If they get defense verdicts, he can just blame it on the previous guy and say he didn't want to disrupt the prosecution."
The Holloway trial is scheduled to start in July. Next up in the case is a Nov. 18 hearing at which defense attorneys are expected to argue that wiretap evidence should be thrown out.
Holloway, who was once a Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy, was released from jail in June but is confined to a Fresno halfway house.