SAN FRANCISCO — Before being charged with investigating Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential election, and even prior to serving as director of the FBI, Robert Mueller III had deep roots to the Bay Area. He was the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California from 1998 to 2001, and decades before headed the criminal division at the same office.
We asked some of the biggest names in Bay Area law who have worked alongside (or in opposition to) Mueller to share their experiences. What emerges is a portrait of a hard-working, unflappable attorney who goes where the information leads him.
►Melinda Haag. Partner, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Hired by Mueller to be chief of the white-collar crime section of the Northern District U.S. attorney’s office in 1999.
Bob ran a very tight ship as U.S. attorney and demanded excellence. From early morning meetings every day with his supervisors to walking the halls at 6:00 pm for a “bed check” to make sure everyone was working, he was a very hands-on U.S. attorney.
Bob had a hard time not wading into the trenches. He famously went to work as a line AUSA in Washington, D.C. handling murder cases after serving as head of DOJ’s Criminal Division and working as a law firm partner. When he was the U.S. attorney in San Francisco he handled a death penalty gang case and would often disappear into his office with the agents to prepare.
►Laurel Beeler. U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of California, who worked with Mueller in the late 1990s when she was an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting white-collar cases.
Bob pushed us to justify our positions but backed us when we made considered judgments. At least twice, he summoned me to a meeting in his office to discuss my recommendation for a prosecution decision. He listened, we discussed, and he supported my judgment call, publicly, in meetings with agents and supervisors who took a different view.
Bob had a vision: for the office as an institution, the work, and the people. He expected us to be our best. He demanded that we see all sides of a case: the strengths, the weaknesses, and the people—including victims, witnesses, and defendants—who were involved in it. He emphasized this in his first group meeting with us, when he talked about the importance of understanding the context for what happened and the qualities that a good prosecutor brought to a case. Among those qualities, he said, was compassion; without it, we missed half the picture. He also called out a colleague for not wearing a tie.
►Jeffrey Bornstein. Partner, Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. Assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division in San Francisco from 1989 to 2005.
Bob always expected straight, honest answers to his questions. I recall one case in particular where he gathered his senior staff and asked each of us what we thought about a specific position he was planning to take in a case. As we sat down, Bob told us, “I know what Jeff thinks, that I’m full of **it.” I remarked that while I would not have been so colorful in my characterization, he was on the right track. During that meeting, after a full discussion of everyone’s viewpoint, Bob modified his position and we reached a consensus.
After 9/11, I remember thinking that we could not have picked a better person to step in and take control of the FBI in such a perilous time for our country. I feel that in view of the very serious allegations against the president and his administration, Bob will ensure that there is a prompt, full, and impartial investigation. I fervently believe that Bob will put country over politics; he will follow the facts and enforce the law—no matter where it leads.
►Elizabeth Cabraser. Partner, Lieff Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein. Worked with Mueller in his role as settlement master in the “dieselgate” litigation against Volkswagen.
His singular goal was a fair resolution that balanced environmental reparations with consumer recourse, and this meant herding some high-powered governmental enforcers, defense counsel, and us plaintiffs’ advocates. We all knew he knew when any of us was being unreasonable, favoring wishful thinking over fact, or simply hunkering down when a little flexibility was called for. The recalcitrant party was called into his office and favored with a deeply soulful, profoundly disappointed, searching and unflinching gaze. This was an amazingly effective interrogation/ persuasion technique. It serves him well.
►John Keker. Partner, Keker, Van Nest & Peters. Faced off against Mueller as defense counsel when Mueller was assistant U.S. attorney in the 1970s and 80s, and and served as the lead prosecutor against Oliver North over the Iran-Contra scandal.
I have known Bob Mueller for more than 50 years, and couldn’t be happier that he has agreed to take this on. His conclusions will be the honest truth, no spin, no holds barred, no political interference. We went to college together, were Marine infantry platoon leaders in Vietnam at close to the same time, tried cases against one another when he was an AUSA, worked together when he returned to the N.D. Cal. as [U.S. attorney]. I have no doubt whatsoever about Bob’s integrity, honesty, love for the country and the rule of law, an ability to get to the bottom of whatever went on regarding Russia and the election.
►Michael Li-Ming Wong. Partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Hired by Mueller as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California in 2000.
I came directly from private practice and had no prosecutorial experience—indeed, I had never worked on any criminal case. From the moment Bob interviewed me for the job, it was clear that prosecutorial ethics were exceptionally important to him. During the interview he asked me numerous questions relating to ethics, including how I would handle hypothetical situations involving thorny ethical condundrums, and pressed me on my responses. Ethics were so important to Bob that he put one of the best AUSAs in the office, Lew Davis (who is now a judge of the Contra Costa Superior Court) in charge of training new AUSAs on ethics and serving as the office’s point person for many ethical questions.
Looking back at my tenure as a federal prosecutor, as proud as I am of the cases I tried and the units I supervised, I am equally proud that during my years as an AUSA, never once did any defense attorney or anyone else allege that I committed a discovery violation or any other ethical transgression. I like to think that the high standards for prosecutorial ethics harbored by the prosecutors that Bob hired and had trained, are now part of his legacy.