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John Keeney literally epitomizes a lifelong dedication to government service. A longtime deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, Keeney, 78, has been on the job for almost 50 years. He has served under 10 presidents and 16 attorneys general. Rarely quoted in the press, he has had a hand in some of the largest federal criminal cases in history and, in terms of cumulative service, has managed the Criminal Division longer than any presidentially appointed assistant attorney general. Still active in his position, Keeney recently testified on Capitol Hill about the division’s day-to-day activities. He will be honored in a manner few career government employees have ever been: The government is naming a Justice Department building on New York Avenue for him. Regardless of this memorial, he has no plans to retire. His office is decorated with pictures of the attorneys general whom he has advised, with the most prominent space reserved for the one Keeney most admired: Robert Kennedy. On a steamy September afternoon, Keeney talked with Legal Times reporter Jim Oliphant about his tenure at the Justice Department, his secret for surviving in a town known for making short shrift of people in power, and why fledgling lawyers should shun the riches of the private sector and enter government service. LEGAL TIMES: You’ve been with the Justice Department since 1951. What was your first job? KEENEY: My first job was in the Criminal Division, Internal Security Section. I would review various reports containing alleged false statements by people who appeared in various forums, including congressional testimony. LEGAL TIMES: What made you decide to join the Justice Department? KEENEY: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t specifically recall why, except that I thought it would be interesting. LEGAL TIMES: Being a young lawyer, starting out, what was the experience like, working for the federal government? KEENEY: Well, it was an interesting experience, but the work was pretty dull. All I was doing was reviewing FBI reports. I moved up the ranks in Internal Security and ultimately became chief of the section, where we prosecuted Communist conspiracy cases. That got us out in the field. We were trying cases. Smith Act cases. Contempt of Congress cases. LEGAL TIMES: Did you ever consider going out to private practice? KEENEY: Not very seriously, no. I moved into [the section on] organized crime in May or June of 1960, right before the election of John Kennedy. The president took over in ’61 and Robert Kennedy became the attorney general. He invigorated the section on organized crime. It was very exciting. LEGAL TIMES: What kind of work were you doing then? Were you trying cases? KEENEY: Yes, conducting grand jury investigations and then trying cases. In 1966, I became deputy chief of the Organized Crime Section. My litigation activities were somewhat limited after that. LEGAL TIMES: Do you recall a specific organized crime figure you put away? KEENEY: I convicted Frank Nitti’s nephew on a grand jury contempt charge. I returned an indictment against “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio. Milwaukee Phil was one of the big hit men for the Chicago mob. LEGAL TIMES: Do you look back at a period of your career and say, “That was the time I enjoyed the most”? Was there a particular administration that you enjoyed serving under the most? KEENEY: Well, that was the most exciting period. As far as the work was concerned generally, it’s been pretty exciting for the last 30 years. There haven’t been too many dull weeks. LEGAL TIMES: You moved into management, started supervising other lawyers. Why did you decide to proceed on that track? KEENEY: It was a progression upward. It was more responsibility — which I welcomed. Being on the road all the time is not very exciting. The burnout is considerable. LEGAL TIMES: There are several times in your career when you have had to run the Criminal Division. KEENEY: I run the Criminal Division every time an assistant attorney general leaves — which is about every two years. I’ve run the Criminal Division for anywhere from three weeks to eight months. LEGAL TIMES: One could argue the impact you have had on this department is greater than any one attorney general. KEENEY: [shakes his head] The attorney general and the assistant attorneys general set the policy — as Kennedy set it in 1961 in organized crime and later in civil rights. The Eisenhower administration, among other things, focused on Communist infiltration. It varies. Later on, there was an emphasis on public corruption cases, which is a very important part of our work. LEGAL TIMES: Are there particular cases or initiatives when you look back that you are extremely proud of? KEENEY: Before I took over as chief of the fraud section, I was the department representative for negotiating a treaty on criminal matters with Switzerland. It was the first treaty on mutual assistance on criminal matters internationally. The negotiations lasted four years. It took patience. I went to Switzerland at least once a year. I’ve been involved in a lot of big corruption cases, a lot of organized crime cases. I’ve been involved in legislation on the Hill. It’s all been interesting and satisfying work. LEGAL TIMES: What is the secret to surviving? You’re working at a high level, working on potentially explosive cases, on explosive policy decisions. How did someone like you make it as long as you have? KEENEY: By being totally nonpolitical. Because you are not political, you tend to gain the trust and confidence of the people with whom you work, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. After a while, you develop a feel for the job and a feel for the work you are doing and can be very helpful to your superiors. From a policy or tactical standpoint, your guidance can be helpful. LEGAL TIMES: Is there a particular attorney general you had a terrific relationship with? Is there one who stands out? KEENEY: I’ve had good relationships with most of them. I have a good relationship with the present one. I had a good relationship with [Jimmy Carter's Attorney General] Ben Civiletti. Not only was he attorney general, but he was my immediate superior in the Criminal Division. LEGAL TIMES: Are there any administrations when you look back now and say, “Well, that was a rough patch”? KEENEY: [smiles] There’s a rough patch in each one of them. LEGAL TIMES: How has the department changed? KEENEY: It’s changed very dramatically. When Kennedy came in, he opened up the department. It was a pretty stodgy law firm before then. For example, he’d have meetings with the Organized Crime Section, and the whole section would be brought to his office and asked how he could help, if there were any bottlenecks with other agencies in the department. He knew about lifting those bottlenecks. LEGAL TIMES: Has any attorney general since Bobby Kennedy been that hands-on, that involved? KEENEY: The present one is pretty hands-on. LEGAL TIMES: What made Kennedy special? KEENEY: He knew how to motivate people. People would want to work Saturdays and Sundays. LEGAL TIMES: The department has certainly grown, and its influence over America and crime policy keeps growing up. What challenges does that growth present? KEENEY: It presents a tremendous problem because there is a natural tension between the department itself and the U.S. attorneys in the field. In the last 20 years, the U.S. attorneys have become increasingly more active in the formulation of policy. Their viewpoint is not the same as that in the Criminal Division. They don’t like to be reined in. LEGAL TIMES: What has it been like to spend your entire career in one place, surrounded by people you’ve known for years? KEENEY: It’s a great place to work. You deal with an unusual group of people, most of whom you admire and like very much. This is a very strong cadre of devoted, energetic, intelligent, and quite decent people. LEGAL TIMES: Was there a particular moment in your career when you felt the pressure of your position? KEENEY: I’ve never felt the pressure that rises to the level that you are suggesting. We’ve gone through good periods and bad periods. At the present time, our relationship with Congress is not a good situation. LEGAL TIMES: You testified before Senator Arlen Specter’s subcommittee a few months ago. KEENEY: That’s one that worked out pretty well. We took Specter by surprise. He thought that he had something — that that decision was made on a political level. It was made on our level. LEGAL TIMES: Is there a camaraderie that exists among the career lawyers? Is there a division that separates them from the political people? KEENEY: No. I’m speaking for myself, but the political people very quickly integrate themselves into the system. There’s no real dichotomy for the most part between the political appointees and the career people. LEGAL TIMES: For young lawyers today, there is so much money that’s out there now. KEENEY: We get fantastic talent. We get Supreme Court clerks, we get lawyers making $150,000 in law firms coming in for government salaries. We’re very fortunate. LEGAL TIMES: What pitch would you make to young lawyers? Why should they work for the Justice Department when they can make $150,000 a year with a law firm? KEENEY: You’ll find the atmosphere congenial. You’ll engage in the learning curve. You’ll be given responsibility without years of experience in a private firm. If you later decide to go out to a private firm, you’ll be in a better position, and if money’s important to you, more money. And I like representing the government. I might have problems representing individual clients. It’s easy to do the right thing in our position. LEGAL TIMES: Why did you stay so long? KEENEY: Because I liked it. I got through my dull work, and now, for the last 40 years, it’s been interesting work. LEGAL TIMES: Why keep doing it? Why not retire? KEENEY: I don’t have any interest in retiring. Once I get myself up in the morning, I enjoy the rest of the day.

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