Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: John C. Keeney

(Appeared in Bar Report, February/March 1996)

John C. "Jack" Keeney, deputy assistant attorney general of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice, has devoted virtually his entire 47-year professional career as an attorney with the United States Department of Justice. During his rise up the ranks, Mr. Keeney has played a major role in the nation’s prosecution of organized crime figures. Shortly after this interview was conducted, Mr. Keeney was selected as the recipient of the District of Columbia Bar’s 1996 Beatrice Rosenberg Award for Outstanding Government Service.

Bar Report: Can you tell us a little bit about your personal background?
John C. Keeney: I was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and I grew up in the small town of Ashley, Pennsylvania, where I attended parochial school. Of course, growing up the ’30s meant growing up in the Depression, and I have vivid memories of that.

BR: Did the Depression have much of an impact on you?
JK: It had an impact in the sense that it was so pervasive. There was no escaping it. My father was a railroad man on the D&H Railroad. By today’s standards I suppose we might have been considered poor, but given the magnitude of the Depression we were comparatively well off. I certainly didn’t feel poor. We weren’t living in want.

BR: When you graduated from high school did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
JK: I can’t remember what put that idea in my head. It’s not something that I ever thought through very clearly. At the time I entered college, World War II was breaking out, and the war was a more immediate concern. In 1943 I left college to enlist in the Army Air Corps.

BR: Did you see any combat?
JK: Yes, I did. I was a navigator on a B-17, and was stationed in England, flying bombing raids over Nazi Germany. In 1945, near the end of the war, I was on a raid and the plane got hit. We lost an engine and couldn’t turn back because the prevailing winds were against us and we never would have made it back to England. So we flew east toward the Russian lines. We lost one engine after another, until three of the four were out. So it was a harrowing experience. We were flying through thick clouds in a mountainous area rapidly losing altitude. At 11,000 feet we bailed out. I remember descending through the clouds and my parachute wouldn’t open. I was clawing at it, and clawing at it, trying to get it to open. When it finally did I felt this terrific jolt—which came as a great relief.

I hit the ground in a pool of mud and was immediately surrounded by a bunch of kids who were toting rifles. Germany was in tough shape. Their manpower base was so depleted they were conscripting twelve, thirteen, fourteen year-old boys. They pointed their rifles at me, and I became a prisoner of war.

BR: What was your captivity like?
JK: All things considered, it wasn’t too bad. We didn’t get a lot of food, but the Germans weren’t getting much food themselves. It was obvious we were winning the war. So it was just a matter of hanging on and waiting for the end.

BR: Where were you kept?
JK: I was captured near the Russian lines. The entire B-17 crew survived. We were all taken prisoner, and there were some Russian prisoners along with us. The Russian Army was advancing from the east toward Berlin, so the Germans moved us west. We were transported by train, but the rail lines were so torn up that there were long stretches where we had to get out and walk. We saw the massive damage that had been inflicted on the German cities and towns. These places had been turned into ruins.

For a while, we were kept in a camp near Nuremberg, and then we were moved to another camp north of Munich.

BR: How did your liberation come about?
JK: One day the 14th Armored Division arrived. Needless to say, that was a joyous occasion. We greeted our fellow American soldiers with great enthusiasm.

BR: What did you do in your first hours of freedom?
JK: We went into town and got some food. I remember we found a store that had some bread. Then the next day we went on into Munich. As I mentioned, we didn’t get much to eat during our captivity. So food was a bit of a preoccupation.

BR: What did you do when you returned to the United States?
JK: I went back to college—which would have been very difficult had it not been for the GI Bill.

BR: Where did you go to school?
JK: I got my undergraduate degree from the University of Scranton. I graduated from an accelerated program in 1947 and immediately enrolled in law school at Dickinson—once again, courtesy of the GI Bill.

BR: Did you have a vision of what kind of lawyer you wanted to be?
JK: I was taken with the idea of being a trial lawyer. I associated trial work with glamour. Even though I’d never seen a trial, I assumed that it would be interesting and exciting.

BR: Did you enjoy law school?
JK: Yes, I did. At first it was confusing because I’d never had any exposure to the law. But a lot of the other students were in the same boat. We were predominantly veterans who had come back from World War II, and we more or less slogged our way through law school together.

BR: What did you do after you graduated?
JK: I sent out a lot of applications to major corporations hoping I could hook on with one of them. But nothing came of that effort, so I went back to Wilkes-Barre and served a clerkship with an experienced trial lawyer. The idea was that I’d give private practice a try—which I did for a year. But it quickly became obvious to me that a small legal practice in Wilkes-Barre was not what I wanted to do.

So I started putting in applications with various government agencies. I really wanted to go to work for the Department of Justice. In my mind, Justice was the place to be. But my first job offer was from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in New York. I took it and was at the FTC for about a month when I received an offer from Justice for an opening in the criminal division. So I moved to Washington, D.C. in March 1951, and I’ve been here ever since.

BR: That was forty-five years ago!
JK: That’s right. I’ve been at the Justice Department for forty-five years now.

BR: What was the Justice Department like in 1951? Was it a different operation than it is today?
JK: Yeah, it was a stodgy, bureaucratic place. I was excited about coming here, but most of the work I did wasn’t very exciting. I was doing a lot of file reviews, things like that.

BR: Did that change?
JK: Yes, in 1954 I was transferred to the Smith Act unit, which was responsible for prosecuting communist conspiracy cases. During the ’50s there was great concern about Communist Party activities in the United States. Various statutes were utilized to prosecute communist leaders. The Smith Act unit was responsible for investigating and prosecuting the Communist Party leadership in our major cities.

BR: Were these espionage cases?
JK: No, no. They were conspiracy cases—conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States.

BR: Did you obtain any convictions?
JK: Yes, we did. I worked on the case where we convicted Junius Scales of Greensboro, North Carolina, for membership in the Communist Party with intent to overthrow, and I was on the case where we obtained convictions against the Communist Party leadership in New Haven, Connecticut.

BR: Were these dangerous people?
JK: No, they were not. Their basic loyalty was to Communist Russia, and the feeling at that time was that they could be a danger if we had an open conflict with Russia. That was the sense in which they were viewed as being dangerous.

In retrospect, I’d have to say that some of those prosecutions were unnecessary. But I certainly didn’t feel that way at the time. As a matter of fact, those are the only prosecutions I’ve been involved in that have ever given me occasion for second thoughts.

BR: When did you leave the Smith Act unit?
JK: In 1960 I transferred to the organized crime and racketeering section. This was the last year of the Eisenhower administration, and it was still a small program then. J. Edgar Hoover was the director of the FBI, and he had publicly stated that there was no organized crime problem in the United States. So it wasn’t a priority operation.

BR: Did that change after Robert Kennedy became attorney general in 1961?
JK: Did it ever! Robert Kennedy was gravely concerned about organized crime. The organized crime section was greatly expanded, and we started some major prosecutions.

BR: Did you like Robert Kennedy?
JK: Yes, I liked him very much. As I mentioned earlier, the Justice Department was a pretty bureaucratic, tradition-bound place. But Bobby Kennedy was an unconventional, informal fellow. He’d walk around with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and he’d just wander into the offices of the line attorneys to see what was going on. He took a personal interest in our work and gave us tremendous support. We’d have occasional meetings in his office and he’d always ask, "What are your problems? What do you need?" If you said, "Well, I’m having a little trouble getting something from the IRS," he would pick up the phone and call Mortimer Caplin, the IRS commissioner, and say, "Hey, we’ve got something here we need to get resolved." And it would get resolved.

BR: What cases were you working on?
JK: I supervised some big gambling cases in Providence and Boston, and then went to work on the Las Vegas investigations. One case that I remember in particular involved Willie "Ice Pick" Alderman, who had an interest in a casino in Las Vegas. He lost some money in an oil venture that had been put together by a man named Robert Sunshine. When the venture went bust, Alderman wanted his money back. So he had a hood by the name of Phil Alderisio talk to Sunshine. The threat was that if Sunshine didn’t come up with Alderman’s money, he wasn’t going to live long.

Well, we were able to move in and get an extortion indictment against Willie "Ice Pick" Alderman and Phil Alderisio.

BR: When you’re involved in organized crime investigations, does the nature of the target make the work seem all the more important?
JK: Absolutely. Phil Alderisio was a killer. There’s no doubt about that. Putting away people who use murder as tool for doing business is a laudable goal. I’ve always felt that the fight against organized crime was an important fight—a fight that needs to be waged and needs to be won.

BR: There’s been a lot of speculation that organized crime was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Do you have any reflections on that?
JK: Nothing profound. There have been a lot of theories pointing to the mob, but in my mind no one has produced demonstrable evidence that shows they were responsible for the assassination. Still, the circumstances are such that some people continue to wonder. Oswald had a strange background, and Jack Ruby had a link to the mob. Ruby’s killing of Oswald is very suspicious. But I’ve never been able to come up with any definitive answers.

BR: We’ve also learned that the CIA enlisted the Mafia in its plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during the Kennedy years. Why would Robert Kennedy try so hard to prosecute these people when they were working in a covert capacity for the CIA?
JK: That’s a question I can’t answer. The people who were supposedly involved with the CIA in that effort—Santos Trafficante, Sam Giancana, Johnny Roselli—were all people we focused heavily on within the organized crime section. We went after them very hard. Robert Kennedy wasn’t cutting them any slack. He wanted us to keep the pressure on, and we did. We went after Giancana with hammer and tongs. The same is true for Roselli and Trafficante. Robert Kennedy wanted those guys put behind bars.

BR: Did the assassination of President Kennedy interfere with the war on organized crime?
JK: Things slowed down for a short while because Robert Kennedy was in such a daze. But that was only a temporary thing. He left to run for the Senate in 1964. Thereafter we started our strike force program, which brought various agencies together in organized crime investigations. That approach did bear fruit. We undertook some very aggressive and successful prosecutions.

BR: Has the fight against organized crime changed much from when you came on at the end of the Eisenhower administration?
JK: Yes, there have been dramatic changes. Most importantly, Congress has been good to law enforcement. They have given us immunity, legal wiretapping, witness protection, and the RICO statutes, all of which are very important tools.

BR: Would you go so far as to say that the war against organized crime has been won?
JK: Oh, no. Definitely not. Organized crime has been seriously wounded. We’ve hit them hard, but they’re not dead. We need to stay vigilant and keep plugging away. Even though the syndicates have been weakened, they still have influence—particularly in some industries in New York City and in the rackets in other cities.

One of the big factors working in our favor is that omerta, the vow of silence, has been broken. We do get LCN [La Cosa Nostra] people coming in trying to cut deals, cooperating with us, and going in to the witness protection program. Some of them are very high-level LCN. That makes it difficult for the mob to run its day-to-day operations because they no longer know who they can trust.

BR: In 1969 you left the organized crime section and transferred to the fraud section. What brought that move about?
JK: A great interest in white collar crime was developing at that time. We were seeing a lot more of it and the government was concentrating on it. For me personally it was a step up, because I became the section chief, and it was the first time I was in charge of my own operation.

BR: Did you feel like you were able to make progress in attacking the problem of white collar crime?
JK: Yes, we made some progress. It was a very small unit when I took over, and we expanded it by bringing in more lawyers to investigate and prosecute white collar cases. However, the big successes in the white collar crime area came after I left the fraud section in 1973.

I think one of the most important projects I was involved with concerned our treaty negotiations with Switzerland. The United States was negotiating a mutual assistance treaty on criminal matters, and I was brought in as the Justice Department representative. We achieved a major breakthrough when we got a treaty that gave us access to numbered Swiss bank accounts in cases where we had active criminal investigations going on.

That was important because in the jet age people had discovered that it was easy to move money out of the U.S. and into foreign tax havens. Switzerland was a country frequently utilized for that purpose. Gaining access to the Swiss bank accounts greatly facilitated our prosecutions, particularly in the areas of white collar crime and organized crime, where people were trying to launder and shelter large sums of money.

BR: In the computer age I would think it’s even more important to have access to those kinds of foreign records.
JK: Yes, it is. Of course, in the case of the Swiss it’s not quite as valuable anymore because criminals can launder their money in other countries. But the more places we can tighten up with criminal assistance treaties, the tougher it is for criminals to operate.

BR: During the Nixon years, did you have any brush with Watergate?
JK: Yes, I had some limited contact with Watergate. I wasn’t responsible for investigating the break-in, but there were a lot of offshoots that got looked into—the illegal solicitation of money, the payment of hush money, the dirty tricks coming out of the White House. We had those investigations and I was involved at the early stages.

BR: Did you encounter any White House interference in those investigations?
JK: Not in the early stages. Henry Peterson was the assistant attorney general supervising us, and he may have felt some heat. But if he did it didn’t filter down to our level. In fact, I remember him coming in one day and telling me that he wanted us to accelerate our efforts focusing on Donald Segretti and his dirty tricks program as well as the campaign financing law violations. The latter involved the money going to Mexico, which we later learned was hush money.

BR: Did you intensify that investigation?
JK: To the extent that we were able to. When Archibald Cox was named special counsel we turned everything over to him, and that was the end of our involvement. It was right about that time that John Dean started to talk, and he implicated the White House in all sorts of criminal matters. But that came after the Justice Department had stepped aside. I was not privy to any of that.

BR: As the Cox investigation zeroed in on the White House involvement in those criminal matters and began to subpoena Oval Office tapes, President Nixon responded by instructing the attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Archibald Cox. Rather than comply with the president’s order, Richardson resigned, as did the number two man at Justice, William Ruckelshaus. What kind of impact did the "Saturday Night Massacre" have on the Justice Department?
JK: I honestly can’t remember what I was doing that Saturday night, but the event did have serious repercussions inside Justice. We almost had a major run of resignations that would have depleted the upper echelon of the department. Ultimately, it was Robert Bork who complied with Nixon’s order to fire Cox. But the part of the story that doesn’t often get told is that Bork did so only after consulting with Elliot Richardson, and Richardson encouraged him not to resign. It was important that the government remain intact. We had to continue with our operations. Robert Bork took an awful lot of heat, and I think he was unfairly criticized for firing Cox.

BR: You think Bork did the right thing?
JK: Yes. The whole Watergate staff was very demoralized. I remember a meeting where Bork addressed them. They didn’t like him and they didn’t trust him, but he asked them all to stay on. He promised that he was going to give them his support, and he did. It was only a short while later that Leon Jaworski was appointed to replace Cox. In the final analysis, it was Richard Nixon who was the big loser. But if Bob Bork hadn’t stepped in and taken control of the situation, I don’t know where the resignations would have stopped.

BR: Do you think the independent counsel system is a good system?
JK: While I have had reservations, I supported the independent counsel statute when it came up for renewal most recently. That’s not because I think it’s a perfect system, and it’s not because I think the independent counsels can do a better job than our Justice Department lawyers. The prosecutors here are not political people. They are committed professionals. I supported the statute for public perception reasons. I think when a prominent political figure is being investigated the public feels better if that investigation is not conducted by an agency of the executive branch. The statute keeps the Justice Department from being drawn into these intensely partisan political battles. For that reason I suppose it does some good.

BR: During the course of your career you’ve served in every administration from Truman to Clinton—that’s 10 different presidents with 10 very different personalities. When these transitions take place, does it have much impact on what you do?
JK: No. Presidents don’t usually involve themselves in criminal investigations. They’d get in trouble if they did because it wouldn’t take long for the press to find out.
In my judgment, politics has never been a serious problem at Justice. Criminals are criminals and that’s what we stay focused on. Changes in administration might slow things down a little bit because the bureaucracy is shifting gears, but the arrival of a new administration doesn’t impact on the way we handle specific cases or conduct investigations.

BR: You mentioned earlier that certain tools Congress has provided—such as witness protection and legal wiretapping—have helped in the prosecution of organized crime. Have mandatory minimum sentences had any impact?
JK: They do have a significant impact in some investigations and prosecutions. If someone knows he’s going to be facing a stiff mandatory sentence and the only way he can get a lesser sentence is to cooperate with law enforcement, that tends to encourage working out deals. It provides us with substantial leverage, and that can be very helpful.

BR: Lately we’ve been reading a lot about organized crime in other countries, and in particular in Russia. Do foreign organized crime syndicates have any influence in the United States?
JK: We have active programs in the Justice Department and the FBI that deal with foreign-based organized crime. Right now, our primary focus is on Asian, Russian, and Italian syndicates that have connections here in the United States, but we also monitor lesser operations.

These groups, particularly the Asians, are difficult for us to attack because of the language and cultural barriers. But we’re getting at them early in the game before they have a chance to establish themselves here in the United States. One of the problems we had in attacking the Mafia was that the problem went unrecognized for so long, which gave them a chance to get established. But the foreign syndicates are not being given that opportunity. We hit them hard when they try expand their operations and penetrate our borders.

BR: If a young law student came to you for advice would you encourage that student to pursue a career in government?
JK: Yes, I think the government provides tremendous opportunities. Young lawyers can get immediate exposure to important legal work, including trials, that they can’t get anywhere else.

BR: Are you concerned about the disparity in incomes between what a young attorney coming in to the government might make as opposed to a first-year associate at a major law firm?
JK: Not really, no. This is a point on which many of my colleagues would disagree, but when you’re doing work that is satisfying and important and are making a living wage, you’re pretty lucky. The fact that you’re not making more money shouldn’t matter much. We can never offer the kinds of salaries the big law firms offer, and we shouldn’t try to.
The great thing about being a Justice Department lawyer is that you get to wear the white hat. That provides a reward that other forms of remuneration just can’t give.