Utah native David Schwendiman is leaving his job as chief war crimes prosecutor in The Hague two years before his four-year term expires because of a U.S. law that limits his tenure.
It marks the second time that Schwendiman, highly regarded as a respected and professional prosecutor, has either had to leave a critical job early or been passed over under unusual circumstances.
The first time came in 2010, when Schwendiman, a longtime prosecutor and administrator in both the Utah attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office, was yanked from consideration for the U.S. attorney for Utah post after widespread speculation he was a lock for the job.
He enjoyed strong bipartisan support from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and then-Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson. When his name was dropped from the list, many of his supporters were surprised.
The reasons were never disclosed, but speculation surfaced that Matheson had angered the Obama White House by casting several votes against administration-backed bills, including the health care overhaul, so the Utah Democrat’s choice for U.S. attorney was pulled as retaliation.
This time, Schwendiman’s fate is tied to a U.S. law that governs his role as a special prosecutor under the authority of the European Union.
He had been a war crimes prosecutor before — after years as a federal prosecutor in the United States — and had retired from the Justice Department.
Schwendiman resumed federal employment in 2015 with the State Department to accept the chief prosecutor position to investigate and hold accountable those who committed war crimes in Kosovo during the 1990s conflict with Serbia.
Under laws spelled out for returning retirees, he could maintain that status for only three years, but his appointment as chief war crimes prosecutor in 2016 was to a four-year term. He told The Guardian in a Feb. 28 story that the Obama administration had assured him his service would be extended so he could complete his term in The Hague.
With the change in administration, however, no such extension has been issued.
The Guardian story said that with Schwendiman’s planned March 31 departure, there seems to be a vacuum in the Kosovo court with no successor ready to take over.
In an official statement, however, Schwendiman expressed confidence that the mission will continue efficiently, and he cast no blame on the Trump administration for the reasons he is leaving.
“I have just been informed by the U.S. Department of State that my three-year term as Senior Foreign Service officer will end on 31 March, 2018,” his statement said. “As a result, my [position] as the specialist prosecutor cannot be extended. This must happen because the U.S. administration is unable to overlook my status as a retiree called back into service — something the law won’t let me change regardless how much I might want to stay.”
He praised the European Union for the speed in which it has begun its search for a new prosecutor and said the strong staff is prepared to carry on under an interim chief until that appointment is made.
”I am not resigning,” he said. “In truth, I would be delighted if U.S. law permitted me to stay. But it won’t and I must, as a consequence, and very reluctantly, leave a position that I am both proud and honored to hold.”
So the University of Utah graduate now has had to oblige decisions affecting his career on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — neither having anything to do with his qualifications or his performance.