Scott N. Schools, an Associate Deputy Attorney General for five years and a powerful behind-the-scenes player at the Department of Justice, will leave the DOJ effective Feb. 22, it was announced on Monday.
Officially Schools, 50, has had a dry-sounding portfolio that belied his influence at DOJ. He offered advice on a wide range of issues, including capital cases, employment, ethics and responsibility within the department and criminal investigations. He also has supervisory responsibilities for the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, the Office of Professional Responsibility, the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management and the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division.
Unofficially Schools’ position was roughly akin to being a member of the College of Cardinals. As one of several Associate Deputy AGs, he was part of an elite career management group at Main Justice that runs the place throughout changes in administrations and party control. The job requirements include discretion, impeccable judgment, and loyalty to the institution of the Department of Justice.
Schools was seen a successor to David Margolis, the longtime Associate Deputy AG who exerts enormous power in the halls of Justice. (see Main Justice’s report.)
Margolis was groomed by the late Jack Keeney, the Criminal Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General who retired in 2010 at the age of 88 after 60 years at the DOJ. Keeney passed away in 2012.
Many view Margolis as also not budging until he “dies at his desk,” as an associate told Main Justice for a 2010 profile of Margolis.
Exercising his judgment and discretion, Schools didn’t directly say he hopes to avoid being carried out of Main Justice on a stretcher. But when asked why he was leaving, he said there is still more in life to discover.
“There’s no magic reason, really” for retiring, Schools said. “I’ve been in the government for 20 years, and the DAG’s office for five years. It looks like the right time to make a jump if I am ever going to make one. I’m a person who likes varied experiences.”
Schools said he will take a break from the day-to-day bustle before looking for a new position, likely in the private sector.
Like Margolis, Schools was in the position of trying to protect the institution from the political and ethical embarrassments that inevitably bubble up in such a huge bureaucracy. Sometimes that process came in for criticism.
It was Schools who signed off on the findings that two DOJ prosecutors had engaged in reckless misconduct in the botched investigation and prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), as Main Justice reported last spring. The prosecutors, Joseph Bottini and James Goeke, both Assistant United States Attorneys in Alaska, were judged to have failed to hand over potentially exculpatory information to the defense – a finding they vehemently contested, arguing the discovery failures were part of a larger pattern of mismanagement by higher-ups.
Some critics have asserted that, in the Stevens case and others, small fry were sacrificed on the altar of expediency to protect the more politically exposed officials at DOJ. Indeed, another career department official, Terry Berg, who is now a federal judge, disagreed with the official findings that pinned most of the blame on the Assistant U.S. Attorneys from remote Alaska.
Asked about the criticsm, Schools said: “One thing I learned from David Margolis, our job is just to get it right. And that is what I endeavored to do. I think the important thing I learned from him is you do the right thing and the chips fall where they may.”
Schools is often tapped to fix problems, as in 2007, when he served as interim United States Attorney for Northern California after the incumbent, Kevin Ryan, resigned. That was when Alberto Gonzales was Attorney General under President George W. Bush, and there were allegations that the administration was trying to exert undue political influence over U.S. Attorneys. The DOJ Inspector General, however, found Ryan was removed for cause.
In another example of his being a go-to guy within DOJ, Schools also served as interim United States Attorney in South Carolina in 2001, essentially warming the seat for a young attorney named Strom Thurmond Jr. Thurmond was nominated, at age 28, for the job by his father, the legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
After Thurmond was confirmed in November 2001, Schools became his First Assistant U.S. Attorney. As the youngest federal prosecutor in the country, it is likely that Thurmond — as well as nervous Justice Department managers in Washington – valued Schools’ sturdy presence by his side in Columbia. (Thurmond went into private practice in 2004).
Schools won numerous professional awards while with the department. In 2011, he received the Attorney General’s Claudia J. Flynn Award for Professional Responsibility, and in 2010 he received the Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award, the second-highest honor for employee performance.
A highlight of his service in the Deputy Attorney General’s office was work on federal death penalty-eligible cases. In particular he cited two cases, U.S. v. Fulks and U.S. v. Basham, in which an appeals court affirmed the death penalty for two men who had murdered women in South Carolina and West Virginia.
A graduate of Duke University, where he was a math whiz, and the University of Texas School of Law, Schools practiced law in Charleston, S.C., and was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Falcon B. Hawkins in South Carolina before joining the DOJ. State campaign finance records show he donates to Republicans.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report, which was updated several times throughout the course of the day.