BJ Pak, Atlanta Ga. (Handout Photo)
Byung J. “BJay” Pak sees America not as a melting pot of cultures but rather as a tapestry woven with threads of justice and liberty.
But justice “is not a constant, a static thing,” President Donald Trump’s newly minted nominee as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia told members of Asian Americans Advancing Justice as he accepted the civil rights organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award last year. “It’s something that needs to be pursued. … And the bar moves every year.”
When his obituary is written, Pak added that night, he would like it to reflect “that I have done something in my life that people can point to and say, ‘You know what? He advanced justice.’” Last Friday, the White House announced its nomination of Pak, Georgia’s first Korean-American state legislator and a first-generation immigrant. Pak’s family left Seoul, South Korea, to settle in Apopka, Florida, when he was 9. If confirmed, Pak, 42, will become the state’s first Asian-American U.S. attorney. Pak’s nomination “is a great leap for us,” said Atlanta attorney Cherish De La Cruz, 2017 president-elect of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association, which published a congratulatory banner announcing Pak’s nomination on its website. Pak is a member and former board member.
“He’s a fantastic role model for the younger generation of lawyers who are up and coming, De La Cruz said. “He is an example of an Asian-American attorney not only involved in the community but taking on a huge leadership role.”
Pak, she added, also “really has a truly caring heart. … He is very humble, too.”
Pak wouldn’t comment on his nomination or the circumstances that led to it. But when the Daily Report named Pak in 2011 as one of its On the Rise young lawyers, Pak told the newspaper that, after his family arrived in the U.S., he learned English, in part, by watching American cartoons.
He also developed an affinity for math that would eventually lead him to earn an accounting degree from Florida’s Stetson University. He said his decision to pursue a law degree stemmed partly from his mother’s suggestion while he was in high school to join the school debate team. He learned he also had an affinity for debate and that, as a lawyer, “I could make a pretty good living at this.”
Pak earned his law degree from the University of Illinois, interned at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, then clerked for two years for U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mills in Illinois. In 2000, he joined Alston & Bird in Atlanta as a litigation associate.
But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center caused Pak—whose Facebook page displays the opening words of the U.S. Constitution—to leave private practice for the public sector. He applied as a prosecutor at the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta and was hired in 2002.
Pak handled his share of drug and white-collar crime prosecutions before becoming lead prosecutor in one of the office’s most significant corporate espionage prosecutions: the theft of Coca-Cola’s closely guarded secret soft drink formula by defendants who had delivered Coke trade secrets to arch-rival PepsiCo.
Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, now at Atlanta’s Finch McCranie, was then Pepsi’s general counsel. Thompson said when the materials arrived at Pepsi’s corporate headquarters, administrative staff immediately turned them over to him. Thompson quickly arranged to have Pepsi’s security director fly to Atlanta and return the stolen documents. Thompson said that federal authorities eventually told him the theft of Coke’s secrets was “the real thing.”
Thompson said Pak’s 2006 prosecution of the Coke thefts “could have been sensationalized, and it wasn’t. … There were no salacious leaks about the investigation.”
After securing convictions, Pak argued against leniency. “Choices,” he said, “have consequences.”
Pak later told the Daily Report, “A lot of the interesting parts didn’t make the paper, which was the whole goal.”
Thompson, who supports Pak’s nomination, called him “a terrific lawyer.” Pak, he said, not only has experience as a federal prosecutor but also experience he gleaned addressing community issues as a state legislator. “Given all the things he will have to face as U.S. attorney in one of the key offices in the country, I really think he has the complete package to do the job and do the job effectively.”
Pak spent six years as a federal prosecutor, leaving the U.S. attorney’s office in 2008 for a partnership at the Atlanta office of Chicago firm Schiff Hardin. Four years later, Ballard Spahr lured away Pak and three other Schiff Hardin lawyers, tasking Pak with establishing a white-collar government investigations and corporate compliance practice for its Atlanta office.
By then, Pak had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives as the state’s first Korean-American legislator. A Republican, he represented parts of Gwinnett County. During three terms, Pak rose to become deputy majority whip in the Republican-dominated House and served as vice-chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Last year, Pak chose to let his third legislative term expire rather than seek re-election. “He said from the outset … that he only intended to serve for a certain period of time,” said Atlanta attorney and longtime Republican operative Doug Chalmers, who has been Pak’s law partner since he, Pak and Tippi Burch founded their own boutique firm in 2015. But, Chalmers said, Pak maintains “a heart for public service.” “He has now seen the criminal law world, both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney,” Chalmers added. “He is a very effective lawyer, with very, very high ethical standards.”
Chalmers said that, as Pak segues back into public service, he will not shy away from making his opinions known on policy issues or cases that should be prosecuted. “He is capable of fulfilling that role without worrying about political issues and influences,” Chalmers said. “It’s been a privilege and pleasure to have him in the firm. I’m sorry he’s leaving. But it’s a good thing for Georgia and a good thing for the country.”