Deputy Attorney General David Ogden to leave Justice Department

Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, the Justice Department's second in command, is stepping aside.
Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, the Justice Department's second in command, is stepping aside. ( AP)
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By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

The Justice Department's second in command announced Thursday that he will step down from one of the most critical law enforcement posts in the nation after less than a year of service, bringing to the surface tensions that have long simmered over management of the vast department.

Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden, who won Senate confirmation in March, will step down next February to return to a private law partnership. In an interview, Ogden pointed to accomplishments during his tenure, including initiatives to attack health-care fraud and violence on the Southwest border, but he also cited the strain of running a 24-hour operation with more than 100,000 employees.

Ogden recently underwent surgery for appendicitis. He struggled to find time to spend with his wife, Anne, a partner at the D.C. law firm WilmerHale, and their 10-month-old daughter Natalie, who was born on the same day that President Obama announced Ogden's nomination to the job.

"We've been at this quite a while," said Ogden, 56, who led the transition team and began working months before the election on a blueprint for the department.

"My heart was in my [law] practice, which was hard to leave. . . . It's really important to me and the attorney general that nobody suggest that we're out of sync on policy. We're just not."

Two department insiders and half a dozen former Justice officials said the major reason for Ogden's departure was a lack of chemistry with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and senior staff members, as well as a division of labor between the men that generally left Ogden with the nuts and bolts of the department operations.

"You have two very smart people who just seemed to have a very different concept of what the job was, as sometimes happens," said Jamie S. Gorelick, a deputy attorney general in the Clinton era and a former law partner of Ogden. "There's a reason why the average tenure when I got there was 13 months."

Holder praised his deputy in a statement as an "invaluable leader" and "an effective and diligent advocate for the American people."

"I am sorry to see him go," Holder said.

Division of labor is a persistent issue at the Justice Department, where the fourth-floor wall at the majestic headquarters building displays a long line of photos, including deputies who left after little more than a year in the sometimes grueling post. And in the early stretches of a new administration, officials often scramble to figure out their priorities and stake out a patch of turf, four of the former department officials said.

Ogden sometimes butted heads with career lawyers and political appointees at Justice, according to the current and former department lawyers, who said no specific incident prompted his departure. While considered a brilliant lawyer, Ogden was sometimes criticized by White House officials who demanded quicker action on a financial crimes task force and other priorities, several of the sources said.

Holder and Ogden attended meetings together but had little other contact and did not socialize, the sources added. In September, Holder paused and momentarily forgot his deputy's name at a department-wide ceremony.

Current department leaders, including the third-ranking lawyer and the U.S. solicitor general, voiced admiration for Ogden's intellect in interviews Thursday.

Tom Perrelli, the associate attorney general, who worked closely with Ogden on the transition team, said Ogden had focused intensely on budget challenges in a time of diminished resources and on equipping lawyers and investigators with tools they need to do their jobs.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the former Harvard Law School dean who had been a serious candidate for the deputy's job, said she often reached out to Ogden this year for his "really good, honest, wise advice."

Asked about her interest in replacing Ogden, Kagan replied: "I love my current job. I'm so happy I landed here."

Officials said that Ogden would return to a partnership at WilmerHale on Feb. 5. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gary Grindler, a Justice Department veteran who also served in the Clinton administration, will serve in an acting capacity if a nominee is not confirmed by the Senate by February, the sources said.

One legal source said that Ogden had reached out to the WilmerHale firm Tuesday evening, asking whether he would be welcomed back, and that he received a positive reply in "record time" from the firm's leaders.

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