When Noel Hillman, head of the corruption probe surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, stepped down last week after President Bush nominated him for a federal judgeship in New Jersey, some couldn't help wondering whether the appointment's timing was just coincidence or the calculated removal of an aggressive prosecutor from an explosive case. Sources at the Justice Department tell TIME it's the former--the nomination had been in the works for nearly a year. Hillman, chief of the Office of Public Integrity since 2003, says he asked to be replaced once the nomination was announced. "The chief of Public Integrity," he tells TIME, "should come into the office every day and say, 'How many bad guys can I put away today?' without unnecessary distractions."
But "the timing is an issue," admits a Justice official close to the case. Hillman's resignation comes as the investigation is gathering momentum and, with Abramoff's cooperation, expanding its scope. Hillman will stay on at Justice as an adviser while he awaits Senate confirmation, veteran prosecutor Andrew Lourie will temporarily take charge of the probe, and the rest of the team on the case isn't changing, says department spokesman Bryan Sierra. But the loss of the independent-minded, hands-on Hillman--he attended most of the negotiation meetings with Abramoff and co-conspirator Michael Scanlon--has renewed calls on Capitol Hill for a special prosecutor to take over. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York expressed worry last week that because the Administration "might have something to risk" in the probe, "they may choose a particular type of person," perhaps someone less aggressive, to head up the case.
Hillman seems glad to leave Washington's battles behind. An avid surfer who grew up catching waves on the Jersey Shore, he recently passed up a trip with friends to the Bahamas because he had too much work. Besides, there were barracuda in the Bahamian waters, he jokes--"kinda like D.C."