John C. “Jack” Keeney, who joined the Department of Justice when Harry Truman was president and rose to be deputy assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, a post he held for several decades until his retirement last year, died on Saturday at his home in Kensington, Md. He was 89.
Keeney retired (see Main Justice’s report) after nearly six decades, ending a career in which he became the longest-serving federal prosecutor in American history, and for that matter one of the longest-serving federal employees ever.
Anonymous to much of the public, Keeney wielded enormous power inside the Criminal Division as its “steadying hand” and “institutional conscience,” according to the book Main Justice by Brian Duffy and Jim McGee.
“For the last six decades, Jack Keeney served the Department of Justice with dedication, integrity and an unshakeable commitment to the rule of law,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “As the longest-serving federal prosecutor in the history of the United States, the contributions that he made – to the Justice Department and to the nation he was so proud to serve – are beyond measure. And I am one of many who have been grateful to count him as a mentor, advisor and friend.
“He was truly an American hero,” the National Association of Former United States Attorneys said in announcing Keeney’s passing.
Keeney served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was a prisoner of the Germans in the closing months of the conflict, after his B-17 bomber was shot down. After his service, he graduated from the University of Scranton in 1947. He received law degrees at Dickinson School of Law in 1949 and from George Washington University School of Law in 1953.
Keeney joined the DOJ Criminal Division in 1951, at a time when the Cold War was burning hot. Three years later, he became chief of the unit that prosecuted cases involving conspiracies to overthrow the U.S. government. In 1960, he moved to the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, serving as Deputy Chief. From 1969 to 1973, he was chief of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.
Keeney and his wife, the late Eugenia Brislin, had five children and two grandchildren.
“In 1990 Keeney received the Henry E. Petersen Award, the Criminal Division’s highest award. He 1996, he received the Attorney General’s Award, the highest award bestowed by the Attorney General. In 2010, one of the Criminal Division buildings was name in honor of Jack,” the former U.S. attorneys’ organization noted.
But the honor Keeney most cherished may have been bestowed upon him last year, when Lanny Breuer, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, commented on Keeney’s impending retirement. Keeney, Breuer said, was a “career prosecutor in every sense of the word and meaning. His devotion to the department and to mentoring thousands of young prosecutors is unparalleled.”
Attorney General Holder said as much on Monday: “Although Mr. Keeney will be sorely missed, his legacy will live on – in the Justice Department building that bears his name, in the standard of excellence that he established in the department’s Criminal Division, in the work of countless attorneys that he mentored throughout his career, and in the inspiration that he will continue to provide public servants across our nation.”