Washington — A poster-size photograph of one of the first meetings that Michael C. Camuñez attended with President Obama hangs prominently on the wall of his office in the White House complex.
As a special assistant to the president, Camuñez ’98 was part of a small group in charge of finding people to help run the executive branch in the new administration. The meeting with Obama involved “a candidate for a very senior government position,” Camuñez recalls.
One year later, he still finds his proximity to power a little awe-inspiring. Certainly, it’s a long way from his roots growing up in the Southwest, raised by a single mother and living for a time on public assistance. “You never, ever lose sight of how special it is,” he says.
Camuñez is not the only Stanford Law School graduate with a front-row seat to the inner workings of the Obama administration.
SLS alumni can be found at all levels of government, plying their trade in the stately corridors of federal agencies and executive offices. Graduates of the law school have long had a history of government service—and a significant number of alumni are now working in the highest echelons of this administration. They are the new GCs in D.C. and include the top lawyers at three Cabinet-level departments, heads of large divisions, as well as several members of the Office of the White House Counsel—arguably the nation’s most elite law firm.
Barely a year into their jobs, they have dealt with issues ranging from terrorism threats to the “cash for clunkers” program and environmental disasters.
“It is the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Christian A. Weideman ’00, deputy general counsel of the Treasury Department, who until February worked with Roberto J. Gonzalez ’03, associate counsel to the president in the White House counsel’s office. “You have to be a little bit lucky, if not a lot lucky, to have one of these jobs. So you want to take full advantage of it. People work hard. They invest enormous amounts of themselves in their jobs—and for good reason.”
The rarefied world in which they operate is such that paths cross frequently. Hilary Tompkins ’96, the solicitor of the Interior Department, and Tony West ’92, assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s civil division, worked together on a landmark settlement of a long-standing suit against the federal government by Native Americans. And West sits on an interagency financial fraud task force that was established in an executive order that Gonzalez helped draft.
Ivan K. Fong ’87, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, may have one of the most daunting jobs of any lawyer in government. He oversees 1,700 lawyers who are experts on everything from immigration law to rules and regulations covering airline safety and border security.
An amalgam of 22 different agencies established after the 9/11 attacks, the department is still widely considered a work in progress. With some 86 congressional committees and subcommittees having oversight jurisdiction of some part of the department, it is the most watched agency in government. That makes it challenging, from both a management and legal perspective, Fong says, as well as one of the best jobs in government for a lawyer.
His own experience is about as broad as his current duties. He held a senior post at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, was a partner at a D.C. law firm, and was most recently the chief legal officer and secretary for Cardinal Health, Inc.—one of the nation’s largest health care companies.
His current job has put him in the middle of such disparate issues as the legal rights of Haitians in the United States after the earthquake and the deployment of body imagers for screening passengers at airports across the country. It has also made him a major figure in the debate over terrorism and how to preempt threats while balancing security and liberty interests.
The April 20 explosion, and then sinking, of British Petroleum’s mobile offshore drilling unit in the Gulf of Mexico was, at first, reported in the media as a tragic accident with the desperate search and rescue operation for survivors the main focus. As events unfolded, attention turned to the pending disaster caused by oil spewing, uncontrolled, from the deepwater undersea wellhead, located about 5,000 feet under water. With a growing and uncontained (at press time) oil spill moving toward miles of gulf coastline and perhaps beyond, fear of an unprecedented environmental disaster loomed large, as did the threat to the livelihood and safety of the region’s residents.
With the U.S. Coast Guard (a component of DHS) first on the scene from day one, Fong immediately found himself in the thick of a massive, interagency emergency response effort—speaking daily with West, Tompkins, and general counsels of several other federal agencies, as well as White House lawyers and policymakers.
“DHS and Interior, working with BP, have the lead in the response and clean-up efforts, and all of us are at the center of numerous and complex legal debates about issues such as the scope of liability, potential damages, and legal authorities in the most significant oil spill since the Exxon Valdez incident,” says Fong.
“It’s all hands on deck,” says Robert S. Rivkin ’87, general counsel of the Department of Transportation and Fong’s former law school classmate. “Even those of us who aren’t playing a lead role are supporting our colleagues, in our case by ensuring there are no impediments to transporting direct assistance to the gulf.”
Lawyers at the Table
Weideman started his job in the White House the day after the inauguration, and there already was much to do. There were pending court cases that had their genesis in the Bush administration, including litigation over congressional subpoenas to members of the White House staff in connection with the 2006 firing of U.S. attorneys. He monitored congressional and other investigations into the mass shooting at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas and the security breakdown that allowed a polo player and his wife to sneak into a White House state dinner.
In some ways, such duties are not very different from those that lawyers outside government fulfill every day. Fundamentally, “we are attorneys for our clients, who are the president and various White House offices,” says Gonzalez.
That can involve giving advice to Cabinet and other senior-level officials, much as a corporate attorney would counsel his chief executive. It can also involve managing law departments with hundreds of lawyers. A big difference is the unrelenting public scrutiny, especially from Congress and the press. Government lawyers also represent the United States in court, where the interests of the client are not always as clear as in the private sector.
West, who oversees a staff of 1,400 working on such issues as national security and Guantanamo Bay detainee habeas cases, notes that the Justice Department is in court defending a 1996 law known as the Defense of Marriage Act that denies federal spousal benefits to homosexual couples. “It is quite clear this administration believes DOMA ought to be repealed,” he says. “But we also have a constitutional and institutional responsibility to defend statutes passed by Congress.”
For Camuñez, an initial request from a friend to help the new administration assess the state of national service programs led to an offer to “essentially launch the government” as director of presidential personnel. It was an offer he could not refuse. He gave up his partnership with O’Melveny & Myers LLP in Los Angeles and hasn’t looked back. Since then, he has moved on to the Office of the White House Counsel as special counsel to the president. And in March, he was nominated for yet a third position in the new administration, this time as assistant secretary for market access and compliance in the Department of Commerce, charged with enforcing international trade agreements, among other duties.
Tompkins, ironically, had all but decided she wanted a break from the intensity of a high-powered law career. She had worked as an attorney in the environmental and natural resources division at the Justice Department, advised Native American groups as a lawyer in private practice, and served as chief counsel to a governor.
After her old boss, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, pulled out of consideration to be commerce secretary and seemingly put an end to her prospects of going to Washington, she had settled on a new career as a stay-at-home mom to her 1-year-old daughter.
But then she got a call from an Obama transition official. Next thing she knew, she was off to an interview with Interior Department Secretary-designate Ken Salazar—and on her way to becoming the department’s top lawyer (working with another Stanford Law JD, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes ’78).
The job description—helping manage public lands and resources and working with Native American groups—was well within Tompkins’ range of experience. Hers was also a pioneering selection; she is the first Native American-born lawyer to hold the position.
Almost immediately, Tompkins was tested—thrust into settlement talks in a long-standing class-action suit by Native Americans alleging that the federal government had mismanaged royalty payments for natural resources mined on tribal lands. The talks were part of a wider effort by the new administration to settle lawsuits over the federal government’s checkered civil rights record.
The suit by the Native Americans had been pending for 13 years and involved claims by tribal governments that went back generations. As a member of the Navajo nation and a lawyer steeped in tribal law, Tompkins was well aware of the issues and their significance. Eventually, the two sides reached a $3.4 billion settlement; at a news conference, Tompkins declared the agreement a step toward restoring badly eroded trust between the federal government and tribal nations. “I never imagined that I would start in this position and in the first six months settle that case,” she says.
“I walk in every day to a multitude of new legal issues that need addressing,” she adds. “The issues are always changing, and they are always of national significance.”
No one was surprised when Rivkin ended up in D.C. as the general counsel of the Department of Transportation, though few could have predicted the far-flung duties that his job would entail.
Rivkin had been a federal prosecutor, law firm partner, top in-house corporate attorney, and public official, once serving as the general counsel for the Chicago Transit Authority. He and his wife, Cindy S. Moelis ’87, have known Obama for years and supported his first campaigns for public office in Illinois.
So when Obama decided to run for president, they were in Springfield when he made his announcement and they were also in Grant Park in Chicago when he claimed his victory on election night. Moelis, who met Michelle Obama while working in Chicago City Hall in the early 1990s, now heads the White House fellows program, which places a select number of young professionals in yearlong senior leadership positions in government.
“We kind of all thought if this were to actually happen, we would want to be part of it,” Rivkin says. Politics is certainly in the family DNA. Rivkin’s father was an ambassador in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. His brother—a major Obama fundraiser in California—is now the U.S. ambassador to France.
As general counsel, Rivkin has helped craft new rules to limit the amount of time that airlines can keep planes and passengers stranded on airport tarmacs without food or water and has played a role in allocating billions of dollars in stimulus grants for transportation projects around the country. When his boss, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood went to Capitol Hill in February to respond to questions about the department’s handling of safety complaints against Toyota automobiles, Rivkin was at his side to provide legal advice.
He has had tasks that he readily concedes were outside his comfort zone, such as when Secretary LaHood asked him to take over the “cash for clunkers” auto rebate program last August. The program clearly had problems, although most were administrative rather than legal in nature.
“Are you sure you have the right person?” Rivkin remembers asking Secretary LaHood at the time. Rivkin ended up being clunker czar for six weeks.
He says, “I think the message is you never know what you are going to be called upon to do.”
A Life-Altering Experience
An expert on law and technology who has engineering degrees from MIT, Fong co-wrote a groundbreaking paper on cyber-crime policy during his last stint in government when he was at the Justice Department. He says the new rules for computer searches show how the administration is taking a balanced approach when it comes to questions of national security. “I think that one of the hallmarks of this administration is a vision of homeland security that includes at its core preventing terrorist attacks on our homeland—while also including a recognition that the rule of law and safeguarding of privacy and civil rights and civil liberties are part of what makes us who we are as a country. That is, in securing the country we need not sacrifice our liberties,” he says.
To be sure, such jobs are life-altering events professionally and personally. There is the juggling of family and other duties, and some are still in transition. Fong has been living in a spare bedroom at his brother-in-law’s house in Maryland while his wife and middle daughter remain in Ohio and commute to D.C. on long weekends until his daughter finishes her senior year in high school. West commutes each weekend to New York to be with his wife, Maya Harris ’92, a vice president at the Ford Foundation. But they see the personal sacrifices as bearable because of the opportunity they have to make a difference through their jobs. And Tompkins hopes to set an example for her daughter.
“I decided to take this position in large part for my daughter, because I wanted her to see that a Native American woman could do this and do this well,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy decision, and I do have those days when I feel like I am spread a little thin. But at the end of the day, I think this will be good for her to see that this is possible in today’s world.”
West certainly understands the broader significance of the Obama presidency, referring to a recent NPR report on a study of attitudes among African-Americans that found that as a group, they are more optimistic about their future—despite the recession. “It’s not rocket science to figure out why,” he says.
Camuñez says an image from his Oval Office meeting with Obama last year will long burn in his memory.
Facing the president, he observed a bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. on a table over Obama’s left shoulder. Over his right shoulder, there was a bust of President Abraham Lincoln.
“The president of the United States, the first African-American president, was talking to me and was bookended, if you will, by Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lincoln,” he says. Momentarily distracted, the powerful symbolism almost brought him to tears.
“I am glad he didn’t ask me something important,” Camuñez says, “I probably would have been at a loss for words.”
Categories: Legal Careers