[Viewpoint] A legend of the lawThe federal government buildings in Washington, D.C. are named after famous people such as former U.S. presidents. Only one building is dedicated to a public employee still in office, the John C. Keeney Building on the corner of New York Avenue and 13th Street, a 12-story red brick building that houses attorneys of the Crime Division of the United States Department of Justice.
Keeney, who at 87 is the oldest attorney in the federal government, has worked at the justice department since March 1951. During these 58 years, 12 presidents and 27 secretaries of justice have come and gone. His title is deputy assistant attorney general of the criminal division, a post he has held for the past 40 some years.
Despite his age and although there have been so many personnel changes in the administration over the decades, Keeney has remained in his post for the very simple reason that he is still the best person for the job.
When it comes to fighting organized crime, Keeney is a master: He’s taken on the mafia’s criminal activities in Las Vegas and helped provide analysis that has led to the arrests of members of Asian and Russian organized gangs.
Commemorating his achievement in October 2000, the federal government named the building of the Division of Crime in his honor. At the naming ceremony, the current Attorney General Eric Holder, who was the deputy attorney general of the Department of Justice back then, said Keeney was a most respected attorney whose footsteps would never fade away.
A staff member at the Department of Justice who answered my phone call called Keeney a living legend, adding that many people wonder when he will retire, but as long as he stays healthy he will keep coming to work as usual.
According to information sent by the Department of Justice employee, Keeney’s father was a labor worker at a railway company. In 1943, the young Keeney joined the Air Force as a navigator on B-17 bombers and was dispatched to England. While on a mission over Nazi Germany, his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire and he became a prisoner of war until the end of the conflict in 1945. Keeney then continued studying at the University of Scranton and the law school at Dickinson College. After graduation he got a job in the criminal division of the Justice Department.
In an interview with a magazine specializing in law named “Bar Report” in 1996, a reporter asked Keeney how he felt when a new president came into office since he has worked under 10 different presidents so far. He answered that in the Department of Justice, politics does not matter. Crimes are crimes, so all the attorneys have to do is to investigate. If the president interfered he would be in trouble because the media would notice immediately, he said.
Asked what he thought about wages for lawyers in large-scale law firms, he answered that the great thing about working in the justice department was doing the right thing and that was priceless.
From a Korean’s point of view, Keeney is one of a kind. He has grown older and some of those whom he once supervised have advanced, but he has stayed put and not quit. His commitment to sticking to his principles is also admirable since we know that it is not easy for prosecutors here to steer clear of political influence.
But Korea could never have a Keeney. It is impossible to work as a prosecuting attorney until such an advanced age here. However, we can always learn from his spirit and attitude. If Korea’s prosecutors can follow in Keeney’s footsteps, the criticism that they cater to politicians will soon disappear.
The writer is the Washington, D.C. correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Sang-il