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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 up the legal department at the DHS. Most recently chair 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 DHS job, says Alston & Bird colleague Peter Kontio. Whitley got his start as the assistant district attorney of Georgia’s Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit in 1978, just 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 then-President Ronald Reagan to lead the federal prosecutor’s office for the Middle District of Georgia based in Macon. He moved on to Main Justice, landing a deputy assistant attorney general job in the Criminal Division in 1987. He was named acting associate attorney general in 1989. One year later, Whitley returned to Georgia, becoming the first U.S. attorney to serve in two jurisdictions when he took the Atlanta assignment for the Northern District. By all accounts, Whitley has a tough job ahead of him. Not only will he handle matters related to the DHS mission of protecting the United States against terrorists, he’ll also play a prime role in building the fledgling, but gigantic, agency. “I think it is a big challenge,” says Kontio, a partner in Alston & Bird’s Atlanta office. “I think he feels that he is up to the challenge.” Friends and associates agree that Whitley is the right pick for such a daunting task. “He knows what’s expected at the Cabinet level and he understand how that process works,” says Thomas Boyd, a partner at Alston & Bird’s D.C. office who worked with Whitley at the DOJ. “He understands the role of the federal government in matters that would be the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security.” Whitley spent the last 10 years in private practice, joining Kilpatrick Stockton before moving to Alston & Bird in 1997. Ben Johnson III, Alston & Bird’s managing partner, says that when Whitley first mentioned taking the DHS job, he tried to talk him out of it. Johnson says 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.” While at Alston & Bird, Whitley helped build the government investigations and compliance practice that he headed until his nomination. During his time at the firm, 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, then 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. After an exhaustive, 10-month investigation, Whitley in March 2001 found no evidence suggesting Johnson had showed political bias. Alston & Bird’s Johnson says 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. Michael Madigan, a D.C. partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who represented Johnson, commends Whitley’s handling of the case. “It could have been a very contentious situation, and he handled it in a very professional manner,” Madigan says. 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 says. Whitley’s colleagues call him a consensus-builder. Boyd says he “has a graceful Southern manner about him.” He also stresses 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 says. “Joe’s a homespun guy with an enormous amount of common sense to go with his practical experience.”

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