Denis J. McInerney, new chief of Justice's fraud unit, avows passion for public service

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

Denis J. McInerney, the new chief of the Justice Department's fraud unit, sprints out of his office most nights with a question on his mind: Is 1 a.m. too late to use the treadmill without disturbing my neighbors?

McInerney, 50, routinely logs grueling hours after two months in the new post. He oversees five dozen prosecutors who build health-care fraud, insider-trading and foreign bribery cases, at a time when a majority of the American public is furious about corporate greed.

"These are very complicated cases," he said in an interview. "Nobody should be mistaken about that. It takes time. They're document-intensive. . . . There's no question everybody wants aggressive investigations, but we'll also be very responsible in how we decide. We have to follow the facts, and we have to follow the evidence."

McInerney took the job -- leaving New York, his wife and three children, and a lucrative career at the Davis Polk & Wardwell law firm -- out of a yearning to return to public service. He spent years as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, helping convict the Cooper Cos. and former chairman Gary Singer on money laundering, fraud and racketeering charges. He also worked on the racketeering trial of Imelda Marcos, the shoe-laden former first lady of the Philippines.

Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, described McInerney as "super-smart, a strong leader and terrific person."

'An open mind'

A longtime friendship with Robert Fiske, a legendary figure in the New York legal world, lured McInerney to, of all places, Little Rock, to work on the independent counsel's investigation of a complex land deal in the early 1990s. There, McInerney plunged into the nuances of what became known as the Whitewater case and compiled evidence that prompted key figures to plead guilty, Fiske said.

"He's the hardest worker I think I've ever known," said Fiske, who has been McInerney's mentor for nearly a quarter-century. "He just throws himself into everything."

Rusty Hardin, a Houston lawyer who worked with McInerney in the Whitewater investigation, said McInerney has "always been a prosecutor at heart. He's never been driven by money."

"What you will get," Hardin added, "is an open mind and a willingness to listen, but you'll also get a guy who will come at you hammer and tongs if your client is deserving."

Former colleagues say that McInerney's work ethic can mask a tart sense of humor. He presides over mini-recitals on the piano with his children and his wife, Deb; plays competitive tennis; and engineered wacky film spoof videos for parties at Davis Polk.

At the law firm, McInerney defended a roster of high-profile business clients, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, accused of destroying documents related to the Enron investigation. Another client, James McDermott Jr., the former chief executive of the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, was convicted of leaking secrets to his mistress, an adult-film actress.

Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division, selected McInerney out of hundreds of applicants for a job Breuer calls "stunningly important."

"The American people have an expectation, and a legitimate one, that those who perpetuated some of these large frauds will be brought to justice," he said. "I need a leader who can motivate the people under him . . . and someone who can really be my partner and to partner with the U.S. attorney's offices around the country. Under his leadership, we're going to bring some of the most significant cases in years."

Strong involvement

McInerney appears to have gained the trust of many career prosecutors in the fraud section, who had been leery about the prospect of being led by a lawyer who had defended corporations rather than prosecuted them. His time in the U.S. attorney's office in New York and his willingness to listen to subordinates has eased the reception in Washington, one Justice Department lawyer said.

McInerney has thrown himself into personnel decisions. He recently promoted Kathleen McGovern and Patrick Stokes as deputy chiefs in the securities and corporate fraud sections and Nathaniel Edmonds as assistant chief in the foreign bribery area. He has brought in three lawyers from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction; two officials from the Commodities Future Trading Commission; two lawyers from the antitrust unit who have been prosecuting fraud in government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq; and a health-care lawyer from Miami.

He said many people in private law practice share his desire to do government work. In his case, he has had the full support of his wife, who has visited Washington to help smooth the transition.

"The opportunity to do public service again is something I've been looking for for years," McInerney said. "I was never happier than when I was a prosecutor. There's an opportunity to have a much broader impact when you're in the government. You just can't compare it to what you're doing in private practice."

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