Convictions: an Attorney General’s reflections on his career in public service


John Kroger (CA’ 87) is the Attorney General of Oregon. He has devoted his entire life to public
service as a United States Marine, federal prosecutor, public policy expert,
and professor. As a federal criminal prosecutor, John won major cases against
mafia killers, drug kingpins and corrupt government officials. He helped
prosecute crooked Enron executives and served on the emergency response team to
the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. John wrote about his
experiences as a prosecutor in his book Convictions,
which won the Oregon Book Award in 2009. He received his bachelor’s and
master’s degrees in philosophy from Yale University and his law degree with
honors from Harvard Law School.

Schoenfelder (OR ’08)
is currently a Princeton in Latin America fellow working for Convivencia Educativa, A.C., an NGO that
specializes in teacher on-site coaching to restructure classrooms and transform
instructional practice in marginalized public schools in Mexico. Last year she worked for DC
Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee as an advocate for families with
children in special education. Caitlin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Whitman College in 2009 with a major in
Politics and a minor in Latin American Studies.

CS: Why did you originally
commit yourself to public service? Have your reasons for committing to public
service changed throughout the course of your career?

My commitment to public service has never changed. As you can tell from my
career path, I’m constantly assessing how I can do the most good. My ideas
about what kind of public service would be most productive for me to do has
changed over time. The reason I do public service has a lot to do with my time
in the Marine Corps. I must have been vaguely patriotic and committed to public
service when I enlisted – but I don’t really remember. What I do remember,
though, is coming out of three years in the Marines with an extremely deep
commitment to public service. The Marine Corps tells you ever single day that
your country is more important than yourself. I mean, right now everyday in
Afghanistan and Iraq Marines are giving up their lives to protect our country.
That is something the Marine Corps tells you everyday: that your country is
more important than your own selfish interests, and that you should be willing
to give up everything to serve your country – including the ultimate sacrifice.
So I left the Marine Corps with the belief that we’re each given one life and
that we need to make the most of it. I thought that the way I could do the most
good with the life I have is by committing to public service.

CS: Did your time in the
Marines also influence your decision to focus on criminal law and become a
federal prosecutor?

No, not really. When I got out of college I was considering becoming a high
school teacher or going into politics because they were the two things that I
thought would be really useful. [I decided to go into politics because] I
really believe that you make positive social change through politics. After
college I actually decided to go work on Capitol Hill for Senator Chuck Schumer who was a congressman then, and then for Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, and then for Bill Clinton
on his ’92 campaign. It was interesting. I enjoyed all those jobs and I learned
a lot. When I left politics I wanted a very concrete job with very real,
measurable results where I knew I was doing something good for the public
interest every single day. And that is why I became a prosecutor. Being a
prosecutor is a great job. When you convict a murderer you go home at the end
of the day knowing you took someone really dangerous off the streets and you
don’t have any doubts about whether you are doing something really valuable.
You know you are. What pushed me to being a prosecutor is that I’m really not a
fan of violence. I spent a lot of my time as a prosecutor fighting violent crimes.
For me that is an important statement, that in our society violence is not how
we resolve our disputes.

CS: Why did you
eventually decide to teach? Did being a career lawyer deter you?

It was a combination of things. One is that I really believe in teaching. I
never have any doubts that when I’m spending my time teaching I’m making a
positive impact on our community. Part of it was that I was really burned out
with being a prosecutor. I was working 70 to 80 hours a week year after year in
very intense cases — I was a mafia prosecutor in New York. When you’re in a job
like that you just don’t have any time to think. You don’t have time to think
about the big picture. You don’t have time to really assess your career to
think about whether you’re doing what you think is important. Going into
teaching – in addition to being important in its own right – was personally a
time to sort of recharge my batteries, and to get a little more critical
self-reflection on my own career and whether I was living up to my own values
or not. I can already see that being Attorney General is a very intense job and
that after doing this for a certain number of years it will be great to go back
to teaching again to sort of think about the big picture…. For me teaching is extraordinarily
rewarding. If I can produce more thoughtful ethical lawyers who are really
deeply committed to fighting for justice that is just priceless and tangible as
a contribution to our society.

CS: Changing the subject a
bit, I’m interested in hearing more about your time as a federal prosecutor.
Did you ever have to deal with moral ambiguities? And if so, what did you do
professionally as well as personally to resolve these ambiguities?

It is funny you ask that – and maybe this motivated the question – but I have
written an entire book about the moral ambiguities of my life as a federal
prosecutor. My book, Convictions,
which was published in 2008 and won the Oregon book award in 2009, is all about
the moral quandaries and difficult positions that one finds oneself in as a
federal prosecutor. I took the job thinking that it would be really ethically
straightforward. You know, there are the “bad guys” and you put them in prison.
It turned out that the job was actually an ethical minefield. Sometimes it’s
very difficult to find out what actually happened. Sometimes you think you know
what happened in a case and it turns out the witness was lying to you. You are
given immense power and to use that responsibly and ethically is a great
challenge. Another part of the reason I took the years to teach was to think
about and write about those questions.

CS: I did read a review of
your book and the title struck me: Convictions:
A Prosecutor’s Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron
. What were some of the main differences in prosecuting
corporate executives and street criminals?

The simple thing to say is that it’s easier to prosecute the mafia than a
company like Enron because the mafia members know they’re criminals. The mafia
is pretty rational when they’re investigated and charged with a crime. They are
pretty rational about making a decision to plead guilty or not. They sort of
look at all the evidence and they have no problem going into court and
admitting to being a crook – in fact they like to think of themselves as
criminals. Most white-collar defendants don’t view themselves as criminals in
any way. They’re shocked at being treated like criminals. Whether it makes
sense or not, they fight very aggressively. They often have millions of dollars
to pay for very high-end legal defense. And it’s difficult to convince them to
plead guilty because they have a very hard time admitting publicly that they
did anything wrong. With Enron we started the case with roughly 10-12 million
documents to look at and originally we had a team of five prosecutors. Five
prosecutors trying to look at, examine, and assess 10-12 million documents is
an immense challenge. White-collar cases are very hard. Quite honestly, I
prefer violence cases to white-collar cases as a prosecutor.

CS: I’m currently living in
Mexico and the drug war is the biggest policy issue affecting every level of
government here. Based on your experience prosecuting major drug cartel
leaders, I’d love to hear what sort of policy advice you might have regarding
the current “war on drugs”?

The Mexican government really needs to get its arms around corruption within
its own government to be able to protect its judges and to make sure its
prosecutors and police are not corrupt. The United States has put Mexico in a
very difficult position. We are the drug market that fuels their drug wars.
That is just a fact. We have not done a good job in the United States
decreasing our demand for illegal drugs. My experience is that you can
prosecute drug cartels, you can disrupt drug cartels, but as long as the market
is still there someone will always pop up to meet that market demand. Narcotics
are a commodity just like sugar, tobacco, or anything else. If there is a
demand, someone will meet it with a supply. In the long term, Mexico will have
a very hard time weeding out the drug trade unless the United States has a
better national strategy for decreasing its demand for drugs. I think the
Mexican government is correctly and reasonably frustrated that it is our guns
and our demand that fuels the trouble that it has to deal with.

CS: What inspired you to sit
down and begin writing about your experiences as a prosecutor?

Initially it was that I just had fascinating stories to tell. I was a mafia
prosecutor in New York and I had these crazy stories of what it was like to
prosecute the mob… As I kept writing it became a way for me to put my own
career under an ethical microscope and really relive what I had spent six years
doing and try and learn from it. The book is filled with the lessons I learned
as a prosecutor, but most of those lessons weren’t immediately clear to me.
They were lessons learned by reflecting and writing about that experience. So
I’m a huge fan of having enough time in your life to have time to reflect in a
self-critical way. The book was a really important vehicle to do that.

CS: From the law school
classrooms of Lewis and Clark, why did you decide that running for Attorney
General in 2008 was your next career step?

Hardy Myers, who was my predecessor, had served 12 years so I knew that he was
going to step down. I’m very familiar with what AGs do and I knew it was both a
position that I was very well prepared for and also a position where I could do
an incredible amount of good if I ran and won. I had very specific goals when I
ran for the office. They are the same issues I’ve worked on my entire career,
which are: fighting crime, protecting the environment, and helping consumers.
So it was the perfect opportunity to accomplish a lot of the things that I hold
very dear. And, frankly, as a law professor I am constantly telling students to
go into public service so it was a “put your money where your mouth is” kind of
moment. My students said, well why don’t you run for that! And so there was
also a sense of practicing what you preach.

CS: What do you consider your
biggest accomplishments so far as Attorney General?

First of all, when I got into office we had no attorneys investigating mortgage
fraud and we’re obviously in the biggest mortgage crisis in our country’s
history. So, we created a new mortgage fraud task force, which is in part
putting some people behind bars, but also investigating and closing down, or
banning from doing business in Oregon, some unethical foreclosure relief
companies. I’m happy with that as an achievement. We created Oregon’s first
environmental crimes enforcement unit. So we’re taking on polluters and
charging them with crimes. For me, if you’re not properly enforcing environmental
laws you’re not going to be able to properly protect the environment. We’ve
also been very aggressive about consumer protection. We’ve taken legal action
against a very large number of America’s biggest companies – big Wall Street
firms, big pharmaceutical companies. We’re trying to hold them accountable for
breaking the law. I think we’ve done a great job in that area.

CS: Have there
been unexpected challenges you’ve encountered in this position?

There has really only been one surprise. I’ve increased investigation and
prosecution of official misconduct by government officials by somewhere between
400 and 500 percent over my predecessor. We’ve removed a judge from office.
We’ve removed prosecuted a couple of sheriffs. We’ve charged a sitting elected
district attorney with crimes. The biggest surprise for me is that we spend a
considerable amount of time investigating people within government who aren’t
living up to expectations.

CS: There are a lot of
Trumans who go to law school – and even more who consider it. What advice would
you give to Trumans considering law school?

I think law school is a great preparation for a career in public service … I
think there are two things really powerful about it. One is that it gives you a
very specific set of skills that you can use in the public interest and that is
valuable – whether you are a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a judge or a
legislator. Second, it gives you a lot of flexibility. If you value public
service and you’re an education expert, at a certain point you’re only going to
be able to get jobs as an education expert. Careers are so long now that you
really can have a 40 to 45 or 50-year career. Having the flexibility to move
around and do different things in public service is great. I really liked being
a prosecutor. But I also like the flexibility of having other options of public
service that aren’t just that

CS: Has your concept of
justice, or relationship towards justice, shifted over the course of your
career – from the time you were studying philosophy at Yale to now serving as
Oregon’s Attorney General?

I don’t think it has changed, I think it has deepened. I started studying
justice as a philosophical concern back in college before I knew I was going to
be a lawyer. And a lot of my work in philosophy as a college student has really
influenced my career. My ideas about justice first started taking hold reading
Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and
John Rawls in college. I teach all
those texts now. I’m still an adjunct law professor and teach one night a week
and I focus on theories of justice. So I don’t think there has been a radical
shift, but I think I see justice as being both more important and harder to
achieve the longer I work at it.

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