By David Ingram and Mike Scarcella
President Barack Obama this evening announced his intent to nominate Bryan Cave partner James Cole as the next deputy attorney general, the White House said.
Cole, 57, comes to the nomination with a mix of experience in the Justice Department and in private practice. He spent 13 years at the department, rising to be chief of the Public Integrity Section. He’s been at Bryan Cave since 1995, specializing in white-collar defense and corporate investigations, though he took time to serve as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee during its inquiry of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
“James brings with him exceptional experience, both as a lawyer in private practice and as a government official with over a decade of service at the Department of Justice," Obama said in a statement released shortly after 7 p.m. "The American people will be well served by his integrity and commitment to the law. I’m grateful he’s agreed to take on this important role, and I look forward to working with him.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he wants the committee to consider Cole's nomination at the earliest possible time. Leahy said he will ask the Senate to expedite "our consideration of Jim Cole’s nomination to this extremely important law enforcement position.”
Cole is also a friend of Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., and the two worked together at the Justice Department.
“He’s experienced, able, and a very fair-minded guy,” said Irvin Nathan, general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, who worked with Cole as a partner at Arnold & Porter.
Several prominent cases promise to be fodder for Cole’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2004, he was hired to monitor AIG’s compliance with a $126 million securities fraud settlement the company reached with the government. He represented Saudi Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud after insurance carriers and Sept. 11 survivors tried to sue the prince and others, claiming they had a role in financing terrorists.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that Cole's full record will be carefully evaluated, including his time spent at the Justice Department.
"There are already some areas of potential concern, such as Mr. Cole’s work monitoring the activities of failed insurance giant AIG beginning in 2006 – which later received a massive $182.3 billion bailout, at a current estimated cost to taxpayers of $45 billion," Sessions said. "How he performed at that job is directly relevant to his qualifications and will need to be closely examined."
In Washington federal district court, Cole represented the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union of the Washington Teachers Union, in a civil fraud case filed in 2002.
Arnold & Porter partner James Cooper, who led the embezzlement conspiracy prosecution of officials from the Washington Teachers Union in 2003, called Cole an excellent choice for deputy attorney general because he brings the perspective of an attorney who has worked on both sides of the courtroom.
“I am extremely pleased with the selection,” said Cooper, who practices in white collar criminal defense. “He has had the kind of distinguished career inside and outside of the government that suggests to me he has the right kind of judgment and temperament to be an effective manger.”
As the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, the deputy attorney general manages the day-to-day operations of its tens of thousands of employees nationwide. The deputy serves as the department’s top official when the attorney general is unable to do so, and he can be one of the department’s top public faces on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
Cole would play a lead role in decision-making in terror prosecutions. The department, for instance, has yet to announce a venue for the prosecution of the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And Holder recently announced the department wants to revise Miranda law in a way that gives investigators in terror cases greater flexibility.
Cole did not return an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment.
Gary Grindler of the department’s Criminal Division has been acting deputy attorney general since February, when David Ogden stepped down to return to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Cole’s candidacy was first reported last month by ProPublica, and the plans to nominate him were reported Friday afternoon by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
Nominees for top Justice Department positions receive intense scrutiny from the Senate Judiciary Committee, though senators and their staffs will be likely be tied up for the next two months on the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.
Cole joined the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in 1979, two years after Holder did. The office handled such cases as the corruption investigations into federal judges Alcee Hastings and Walter Nixon Jr., both of whom were forced from the bench, and the Abscam congressional bribery probe.
The lawyers who worked there, also including Reid Weingarten, now a Steptoe & Johnson partner, grew close.
“Going to trial is sometimes like going to war, so you rely on your friends,” Cole told Legal Times in 1997. “They would be your biggest fans and your most severe critics. People did not hesitate to tell you if you had a brilliant idea or a real stupid idea. That creates an enormous amount of trust.”
Cole left the department in 1992 and initially joined the Washington office of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.
Updated at 7:20 p.m.