NLJ Lawyer of the Year: DOJ's Glenn A. Fine

Marcia Coyle
The National Law Journal


Image: Joseph Adolphe

When considering the government's watchdogs -- officially called inspectors general -- U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Glenn A. Fine does not walk on water, said someone who watches the watchdogs, but "he is pretty damn good."

During a year in which the Justice Department's reputation suffered one black eye after another -- largely because of politicization of a number of its functions -- Fine and the team he has assembled in the past eight years emerged as beacons of nonpartisanship and independence as they thoroughly investigated problem after problem and revealed where the department went off track. Fine's office also recommended steps to department leaders and Congress for restoring the department's position as the nation's pre-eminent law enforcement agency.

Fine is The National Law Journal's lawyer of the year for his work in ensuring the department's fulfillment of its motto: "who prosecutes on behalf of justice."


"His reports have been incredibly important in opening the eyes of the American public and certainly of Congress to critical problems inside the Department of Justice, from post-9/11 detentions to torture in Guantanamo interrogations to abuse of national security letters," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Glenn's office was really the only part of government that was doing oversight in the long, dark years of the Bush administration, especially when Republicans also were in charge of the Hill."

Besides the more routine work of his office in conducting audits and reviews of the different components of the Justice Department, consider Fine's special reports in 2008:

• An investigation into the removal of nine U.S. Attorneys in 2006.

• An investigation into allegations of the mishandling of classified documents by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

• An investigation of allegations of politicized hiring by Monica Goodling and other staff in the Office of the Attorney General.

• An investigation of allegations of politicized hiring in the Department of Justice Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program.

• A review of the FBI's involvement in, and observations of, detainee interrogations in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Afghanistan; and Iraq.

• A review of the FBI's use of national security letters.

• A review of the FBI's use of Section 215 orders for business records.

Although department leaders might grind their teeth at his findings and recommendations, they and Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill accept them with a surprising -- for Washington, D.C. -- lack of criticism or skepticism. In his eight years as inspector general, Fine, through the quality and nonpartisan character of his work, has carved a deep reservoir of credibility.

"The reason for his credibility on the Hill is that his reports are all about the facts," said Fine's predecessor and former boss, Michael Bromwich, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. "Even in such investigations like the political hirings and firings, the conclusions are uncontroversial when they are presented because they follow from the facts."


Another, more personal reason for Fine's credibility in Washington, according to Bromwich, who hired Fine in 1995, is that Fine is not viewed as a "grandstander." "He doesn't go out in front of the Justice Department and hold a press conference," he said. "He lets the reports speak for themselves. People realize this is about doing the public's business."

The Office of Inspector General is an independent entity within DOJ that reports to both the attorney general and Congress. The office's mission is to investigate allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in DOJ programs and personnel and to promote economy and efficiency in DOJ operations.

Fine was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 15, 2000. He initially was hired by Bromwich in 1995 as a special counsel. In 1996, he became the director of the OIG's Special Investigations and Review Unit. He is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Harvard Law School graduate, a Rhodes scholar and a one-time third-round draft pick of the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association.

Modest and serious, but with a quick and easy laugh, Fine described 2008 as "a time when a lot of important investigations reached fruition," even as the office was doing its regular audit work.

"It was a busy period, but we worked hard to complete these reports and to do them thoroughly," he said.

Fine may be a bit too modest. Bromwich called 2008 "an extraordinary year" for Fine and his office. "They had to wrestle with a broad range of issues, the likes of which virtually no inspector general has had to deal with before," he said. "Some of them he has reached out for, some he absolutely had to do and others he was requested to do."

Fine's investigation into the firing of the U.S. Attorneys may be the "flagship" report of 2008, noted Bromwich, but it was his investigations into the partisan hirings within the department's honors and intern programs that had a "very deep impact" on the department itself.

"Those programs are the lifeblood of the department," he said. "Many distinguished lawyers proudly say they began their career in the honors program. For them to see the report that laid bare how practices and procedures had been corrupted came as shock to many people."


One characteristic that sets Fine apart from other inspectors general is his clear grasp of what is most important within his department, said Beverley Lumpkin, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, which has been conducting an in-depth study of the operation of inspector general offices.

"Glenn Fine is not wasting his time on issues that don't matter," she said. "He has figured out what are the most important issues on the department's plate, and he is not afraid to tackle them. I'm sure he has very few friends left on the upper floor of the building, but that's a sign of a good IG."

Fine said he has been fortunate that department leaders understand and support the role of an independent inspector general. They have never interfered with the office's work, he said, and, even when the results are critical, they have understood the office's mission is to improve the department.

He and his staff walk a difficult line within the department. "We're part of the department, but we're unique," he said. "It's a good and appropriate model. I don't socialize on a regular basis with [others] in the department. I'm sure I'm not the most popular person in the cafeteria, but I hope they respect us for our work."

As part of his reporting responsibilities to Congress, Fine each year identifies a list of top challenges facing the Justice Department. On his 2008 list are counterterrorism; sharing of intelligence and law enforcement information; information technology systems planning, implementation and security; civil rights and civil liberties; restoring confidence in the Department of Justice; violent crime; cybercrime; grant management; detention and incarceration; and financial management and systems.

His job, said Fine, is one in which a person can have a significant impact on an important part of government.

"This is a great job, and I don't think about the future," he said. "I think about the next day and next week."