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Larry Thompson had a decision to make. It was the fall of 1995, and the probe into alleged corruption at the Department of Housing and Urban Development was winding down. Thompson had been asked to take over as independent counsel at a delicate moment. Under Thompson’s predecessor, Arlin Adams, former Interior Secretary James Watt had been indicted on 25 counts of perjury and lying to Congress about his role as a HUD consultant in the 1980s. The case was viewed in legal circles as weak, yet the public drumbeat to nail Watt was steady and loud. Thompson didn’t push for a trial. Instead, he opened settlement talks with Watt’s Washington, D.C., lawyers. The talks proved fruitful. On Jan. 2, 1996, Watt pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of attempting to mislead a grand jury, a long step down from 25 felonies. He was sentenced to five years’ probation. Lawyers who have watched the 55-year-old Thompson, tapped last week as President George W. Bush’s choice for deputy attorney general, say the measured approach speaks to his style. As U.S. attorney in Atlanta from 1982 to 1986 and as a King & Spalding litigation and criminal defense partner since then, Thompson is known for good judgment, careful attention to detail, and an ability to bargain. But now he faces his biggest challenge yet. As the No. 2 to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Thompson will face a far-ranging set of responsibilities — from keeping a handle on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to carrying out Ashcroft’s broad policies to coordinating with the White House. People who know him say he’s an adept manager. But he’s never run anything on this scale, where he will essentially be the chief operating officer of a bureaucracy of 125,000 employees. In the Watt case, Thompson “stepped back and made a Solomonesque decision to accept the plea, given all the circumstances,” says Frank Carter, a D.C. defense lawyer who was on Watt’s team. Many observers thought the prosecution was oversized. Watt was hit with a massive 25-count indictment by the independent counsel — but not over corruption. His case grew out of his dismissive and incomplete reply to an FBI agent, who wanted to know if Watt had documents relevant to the grand jury probe. “From my experience working with him in this case, it’s clear that Thompson exercised very good judgment when he could have gone overboard,” says Carter. “It was very unfortunate that Watt had made statements without thinking of what he was saying. Watt didn’t take his time thinking through his answers. But that’s all that he was guilty of.” William Bradford Reynolds, another of Watt’s defense lawyers and now a partner at D.C.’s Howrey Simon Arnold & White, says he’s convinced, from seeing Thompson in the Watt case and in others, that he’s up to the job. “Larry Thompson has a very solid understanding of how DOJ operates,” says Reynolds, who worked with Thompson in the Reagan administration as Justice’s civil rights chief while Thompson was U.S. attorney. “And he is not going to come to this post with any preconceived political agenda.” In fact, one of Thompson’s prot�g�s in the fairly tight-knit world of high-powered Atlanta lawyers is Kent Alexander, a Democrat who was U.S. attorney under Bill Clinton. “When he was U.S. attorney, he hired me as an assistant. Then he recommended me for the job of U.S. attorney in 1994, and then he brought me in as a King & Spalding partner in 1997,” says Alexander, who left the firm just more than a year ago to become general counsel at Atlanta’s Emory University. “We’re politically different,” says Alexander, “but we talk politics comfortably. He’s by no means an ideologue.” Alexander says the thing he remembers most about Thompson’s days as a federal prosecutor is that Thompson “was very sensitive to the rights of defendants. He didn’t like to publicize someone’s misfortune when he was indicted, for example. He would only publicize a conviction.” Criminal defense lawyers apparently agree. On Feb. 15, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which opposed the confirmation of Ashcroft, lauded the choice of Thompson, saying it was “confident that he will bring fairness, practical knowledge and his high professional ethics to the Department of Justice.” Stephanie Kearns, who has served as the federal public defender in Atlanta since 1984, says Thompson is “a man of impeccable integrity” who “is very open to discussing issues even if he ultimately does not agree with you.”
“As U.S. attorney, he tried cases himself occasionally, just to show that he could get in the trenches,” says Kearns, who was a frequent opponent of Thompson’s office in court. Craig Gillen, who was a deputy independent counsel in the Iran-Contra case from 1990 to 1993, was a young assistant U.S. attorney under Thompson in the early 1980s. “We were working on a huge RICO case together,” says Gillen, now a criminal defense attorney at Gillen Cromwell Withers & Brantley in Atlanta. “I got a call once at 9:30 in the evening, at home. I was relaxing, had my feet up. It was Larry, asking, ‘Do you think we can do it this way, take this approach?’ He would close the office every night.” Gillen says that unlike many other top federal prosecutors past and present, Thompson is not an empire-builder. “In the first term of the Reagan administration,” Gillen recalls, “Atlanta was named a core city for the Southeastern drug task force. All the U.S. attorneys in the region were placed under the Atlanta umbrella. That can create serious turf fights. Larry Thompson called a meeting of all the U.S. attorneys. He said, ‘I am the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. I have no intention of being U.S. attorney for your districts. You all make your own decisions.’ And that was the only right way to do it.” PUT TO THE TEST Thompson’s ability to keep different constituencies happy and to keep the bureaucracy humming smoothly will be tested once he is, as expected, confirmed for his new post. The FBI and other units within the department are fiefdoms with their own sources of power, and Thompson will have to play the honest broker, asserting his authority without pulling rank. Thompson’s experience as a prosecutor includes both his four years as U.S. attorney and four years as HUD independent counsel, a position he held through 1999 while serving as a King & Spalding partner. He wound down that probe with the Watt plea and with a 1998 report accusing HUD officials of “monumental and calculated abuse of the public trust.” At King & Spalding, Thompson is a senior partner in the highly successful “special matters/government investigations” practice founded by former Carter Attorney General Griffin Bell. In addition to representing companies and people accused or suspected of white-collar crime, the group is known for conducting highly sensitive internal investigations for corporations accused of corruption, racial bias, and the like. Thompson also recently completed a government assignment that touched on the sensitive intersection between foreign trade by U.S. companies and international drug trafficking. He chaired a five-member bipartisan panel asked to make recommendations to Congress on the new “drug kingpin” law, which permits the Treasury Department to penalize corporations that unknowingly do business with foreign drug traffickers. Last December, the panel urged Congress to set up a judicial review mechanism for companies that get hit with civil penalties under the law. The American Civil Liberties Union lauded the recommendation. Thompson declines to discuss his Justice nomination or to explain how he will deal with issues as deputy attorney general. However, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionin 1998 at the height of the Monica Lewinsky investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, Thompson expressed a view about the job of the prosecutor that is a good indication of his approach. The independent counsel statute, Thompson said, might well be limited so that it only covers the president, the vice president, and the attorney general. But Congress should neither restrict the topics that an independent counsel should pursue nor impose a deadline. “That’s how you break the cases,” Thompson said at the time. “It’s only accomplished by pick and shovel, by hard investigative work.”

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