The state's top federal prosecutor, Michael J. Sullivan, announced yesterday that he is taking the post as acting director of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, setting off speculation that he will eventually leave Boston and his highprofile job.
President Bush named Sullivan, the US attorney, in an acting capacity so he could be installed quickly, without Senate confirmation, according to Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman. The president decided to choose an acting director to ensure that someone is in the position as he deliberates on who will fill the post permanently, Lawrimore said.
The White House will not speculate on who the permanent choice will be, she said.
``I love the work of the US attorney's office," Sullivan said in a phone interview from Washington last night. But ``when somebody presents an opportunity for an important challenge, where you can contribute to the overall mission of the administration in a different capacity, obviously you jump at the opportunity," he said.
Sullivan, 51, said he was told he will probably serve as acting director for three or four months, working in Washington during the week and traveling to Massachusetts on weekends. While he is out of the district, his first assistant, Michael Loucks, will serve as acting US attorney, he said.
Sullivan was summoned to Washington yesterday after learning that the president was set to sign papers making his appointment official. He said he was approached about the job three weeks ago -- about a week after his predecessor, Carl J. Truscott, resigned amid questions about his spending on a new ATF headquarters.
He was attending a meeting at the Justice Department when Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales surprised him by saying several candidates were under consideration for the job and gauged his interest, he said.
A week later, Sullivan said that he learned that Gonzales had recommended him to the president, who approved his selection last week. He has not yet met with Bush, who signed the appointment papers yesterday afternoon, he said.
``I'm not underestimating at all the challenge this poses," said Sullivan, ``but I'm heading up a premier law enforcement agency."
The ATF, the agency dedicated to regulating firearms, investigating illegal trafficking of alcohol, and preventing terrorism, has a budget of just under $1 billion, he said, with some 5,000 employees. As US attorney, Sullivan supervised a little more than 100 prosecutors.
Sullivan was named US attorney by Bush a week after Sept. 11, 2001. Before that he served for 6 1/2 years as Plymouth district attorney and had been a state representative.
Lawrimore said Bush chose him to serve at ATF because of his qualifications and law enforcement background.
``We thoroughly search for nominees and find highly-qualified people, and Michael Sullivan is one of those highly-qualified people," she said.
Word of Sullivan's departure, and the possibility that he could be nominated to fill the position permanently, set off talk about a potential successor, who would be chosen by Bush.
``This will set off a wave of speculation," said Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph D. McDonald Jr. ``It's a great job. It's an important job. It's the chief federal prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. . . . There will be a lot of law enforcement personnel, a lot of prosecutors who would vie for such a position."
Among the names circulating were Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz, Barnstable District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, Hampshire District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, and McDonald.
``I'm very happy where I am right now," said Cruz. ``I'm up for reelection and plan to continue in this job trying to make my community safer.
``I can't think of a better person for that job," he said, referring to Sullivan's new position. ``He did a great job as Plymouth district attorney and has been doing an outstanding job as US attorney."
Said Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman for Governor Mitt Romney: ``Michael Sullivan has been an excellent US attorney, and the governor is very pleased that he's been given this new honor. The governor and Mike Sullivan have worked very closely on antiterror and homeland security matters, and his expertise has been a real service to the governor and the people of the Commonwealth."
Rick Klein of the Globe staff contributed to this report.