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Washington-Joe Whitley just can’t stay away from Uncle Sam. At least that’s how friends of the former Alston & Bird partner explain his willingness to take on one of the more formidable legal jobs in government: general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security. Whitley, a Department of Justice alum who has worked under five attorneys general and, at one time, held the third-ranking spot at the DOJ, couldn’t say no when President George W. Bush came calling, asking him to head the Homeland Security legal department. Most recently chairman of the government investigations and compliance group at Atlanta’s Alston & Bird, Whitley, 52, was “in the prime of his career,” when tapped for the job, said Alston & Bird colleague Peter Kontio. Whitley got his start as the assistant district attorney of Georgia’s Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit in 1978, three years out of the University of Georgia School of Law. In 1981, he became one of the youngest ever U.S. attorneys, nominated by President Ronald Reagan to lead the federal prosecutor’s office for the Middle District of Georgia. He moved on to DOJ, landing a deputy assistant attorney general job in the Criminal Division in 1987. He was named acting associate attorney general in 1989. A year later, Whitley returned to Georgia as U.S. attorney in Atlanta for the state’s Northern District. He spent the last 10 years in private practice, joining Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Stockton before moving to Alston & Bird in 1997. Tough job ahead By all accounts, Whitley has a tough job ahead of him. Not only will he handle matters related to the Homeland Security anti-terrorism mission, he’ll also play a prime role in building the gigantic fledgling agency. “He knows what’s expected at the cabinet level and he understands how that process works,” said Thomas Boyd, a partner at Alston & Bird’s Washington office who worked with Whitley at the Justice Department. “He understands the role of the federal government in matters that would be the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.” Ben Johnson III, Alston & Bird’s managing partner, said that when Whitley first mentioned taking the job, he tried to talk him out of it. Johnson said he asked Whitley why he thought he needed to do more public service, and Whitley replied, “If the president needs me, then I need to go.” Johnson said taking the assignment was a sacrifice, but Whitley felt it was important, given his commitment to public service. “The budget that they had available probably paid him a third of his hourly rate,” Johnson says. At Alston & Bird, Whitley helped build the government investigations and compliance practice that he headed until his nomination. He was also given the rare assignment to investigate a federal judge for alleged misconduct. In 2000, a four-judge panel of the Judicial Council of the D.C. Circuit appointed Whitley to investigate Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Johnson was suspected of bypassing the random-case-assignment process and giving politically sensitive cases involving political allies of then-President Bill Clinton to Clinton-appointed judges. In March 2001, after a 10-month investigation, Whitley found no evidence that Johnson had shown political bias. Michael Madigan, a Washington partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld who represented Johnson, commended Whitley’s handling of the case. “It could have been a very contentious situation, and he handled it in a very professional manner,” Madigan said. In addition to his experience and connections, Whitley’s disposition especially suits him for his new job, say his Alston & Bird colleagues. “He’s very much a straight-shooter, candid and deliberative,” Kontio said. Whitley’s colleagues call him a consensus-builder. Boyd said he “has a graceful Southern manner about him.” He said that Whitley will admit when he’s not an expert in something, a quality that may come in handy while working in an institution that is still in its infancy. “There’s so many people in this town who don’t know what they don’t know,” Boyd said. “Joe’s a homespun guy with an enormous amount of common sense to go with his practical experience.”

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