WASHINGTON — The head of the Justice Department’s criminal division will step down, the department said on Wednesday, after a nearly two-year tenure focused primarily on the opioid crisis and marked by the handling of a politically fraught referral of a whistle-blower complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
The decision by the official, Brian A. Benczkowski, 50, to leave the department had been in the works since the fall, according to a memo that he sent to his staff, when Attorney General William P. Barr asked each division head to prepare for the coming year.
“At that time, I told Attorney General Barr that I intended to remain in my position until the summer of this year, and he graciously agreed to that timetable,” Mr. Benczkowski wrote. He will be replaced on July 3 by his division’s No. 2, Brian Rabbitt, a former chief of staff to Mr. Barr.
Mr. Benczkowski was confirmed in July 2018 after a 13-month wait, in a 51-to-48 vote largely along party lines. Democrats questioned whether he should be disqualified for his lack of experience as a criminal prosecutor and his private-sector work for Russia’s Alfa-Bank, which they feared had worked improperly with the Trump Organization during the 2016 campaign. The F.B.I. found that data moving between the companies did not amount to clandestine communications.
While at the department, Mr. Benczkowski focused primarily on the nation’s opioid crisis and used data analytics to change the division’s approach to identifying potential fraud cases and other abuses. The division also used analytics to investigate and prosecute market manipulation, securing numerous guilty pleas of traders at the world’s largest financial firms.
This year, Mr. Benczkowski used a similar strategy with data from loan applications to the government’s coronavirus rescue programs to root out fraud.
“We’re bringing the same approach to bear that we bring in the health care fraud context and opioid-related prosecutions,” Mr. Benczkowski said in an interview with The New York Times. “You can never prosecute cases based solely on data, but the data can tell you where to look more quickly than if you had to wait for a witness.”
During his tenure, prosecutors secured a conviction in the case against Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and obtained indictments of four members of the Chinese military on charges of hacking into Equifax, a credit reporting agency, and stealing the personal data of nearly 150 million Americans.
Mr. Benczkowski will also be known for his division’s handling last year of a whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that ultimately prompted impeachment hearings last fall.
During a phone call last summer that was at the heart of the complaint, Mr. Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to announce an investigation into his political rival Joseph R. Biden Jr., and seemed to make the delivery of promised military aid a condition of that announcement. Other administration officials referred the matter to the Justice Department as a possible campaign finance crime.
Career lawyers in the criminal division’s public integrity section reviewed a reconstructed transcript of the call and determined that no campaign finance laws had been violated and that no further department action was warranted.
But the phone call became one of the most explosive political moments of the Trump presidency, and the department’s decision to close the matter helped further the perception that Mr. Barr served as Mr. Trump’s protector.
A month after details of the phone call broke into public view, Mr. Benczkowski distanced himself from Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was one of several defense lawyers to attend a meeting at the department with Mr. Benczkowski and the criminal division’s fraud section. Mr. Benczkowski said that department officials would not have allowed Mr. Giuliani to attend the meeting — about a separate bribery case — had they known that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating two of his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, on suspicion of violating campaign finance laws.
Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman were charged with trying to unlawfully influence politicians, including former Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas; and they were part of Mr. Giuliani’s effort to push Ukraine’s leaders to announce an inquiry into Mr. Trump’s political enemies.
“When Mr. Benczkowski and fraud section lawyers met with Mr. Giuliani, they were not aware of any investigation of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in the Southern District of New York and would not have met with him had they known,” a department spokesman said at the time.
Mr. Barr said in a statement that Mr. Benczkowski had served with distinction. “The entire department benefited from his managerial expertise, institutional knowledge and sound judgment,” Mr. Barr said.
Mr. Benczkowski said he had asked Mr. Rabbitt to be his top deputy with an eye toward running the division.
“Brian and I worked together closely during the previous year on a number of important matters affecting the Criminal Division, and I came to appreciate that he shared my commitment to maintaining the division’s institutional independence and integrity,” Mr. Benczkowski wrote in his memo to staff.