Retired Justice Department lawyer Lee J. Radek, one of the original prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section and later its chief, died Feb. 2 in Springfield, Va., after suffering a heart attack. He was 69.
Radek joined the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in 1971 through the prestigious Attorney General’s Honors Program. He was one of nine lawyers initially assigned to the Public Integrity Section in 1976, when it was founded.
In the 1980s, while in the Public Integrity Section, he became a mentor to several young lawyers who would go on to greater renown: Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole, high-profile Steptoe & Johnson LLP defense lawyer Reid Weingarten, and career department official Marshall Jarrett, now head of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.
“We were all kids, in our early 30s,” Jarrett recalled.
All of them attended his funeral at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield. Jarrett and District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert I. Richter, who joined Public Integrity in 1978, were pallbearers.
Holder spoke at the funeral, recalling how Radek had shepherded him through the first trial of his career, of a public official in Hammond, Ind. “He was first chair and I was the gofer second chair,” Holder said, according to Radek’s widow, Jill, who kept a copy of his remarks. The key prosecution witness turned on the government during the trial. “Let’s just say we did not get our desired result,” Holder said.
Later over drinks, Radek told Holder he’d look panicked as the witness crumbled. “I was, in his words, turning white,” Holder said, adding: “We both laughed ferociously, and then we were friends for ever.”
Radek retired in 2005. Many of his former colleagues praised his work in an online memorial maintained by his funeral home.
“Lee committed the heart of his career to fighting public corruption, and he was a mentor to dozens of us in the Public Integrity Section at Justice for decades. He called them the way he saw them, and he was committed to doing the right thing despite the political and media circus that swirls in Washington,” wrote Ray Hulser, now the deputy chief of the section and a former acting chief.
Radek taught the younger lawyers “how important it is to be fair. It’s not just about prosecuting but how justice is done,” Jarrett said.
Radek was born in 1943 in Chicago. A veteran of the U.S. Army in Korea, he served his first stint in the Public Integrity Section from its founding in 1976 until 1992, as a trial attorney and then Deputy Chief.
In the 1980s he was detailed to Operation Ill Wind, a seminal investigation of corruption in public procurement conducted by the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Va. The investigation centered on Ronald Reagan-era Assistant Secretary of the Navy Melvyn R. Paisley and led to the conviction of dozens of consultants, companies and some nine government officials.
From 1992 to 1994, Radek was the Director of the former Asset Forfeiture Office. He returned to Public Integrity as its chief in 1994.
Radek saw himself as a non-political straight-shooter, friends and family say. But by 1997, he was caught in a war between then-Attorney General Janet Reno and then-FBI Director Louis Freeh over whether Reno should appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged fundraising abuses by President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 election.
Freeh, congressional Republicans and Charles LaBella, then-head of a Justice Department campaign finance task force, were pushing for an independent investigation of the allegations, including that Clinton had awarded big donors with overnight stays in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom and with White House-hosted coffee klatches, and that the DNC and Clinton had accepted illegal contributions from foreign sources.
Radek recommended against an independent counsel, saying the evidence gathered didn’t justify it. Although he had been somewhat sidelined by the campaign finance task force headed by LaBella, as head of the Public Integrity Section he retained authority to weigh in on independent counsel probes. (See a GAO report on the tensions here.)
Reno had already drawn the wrath of the Clinton White House by approving the independent counsel investigation led by Kenneth Starr , whose wide-ranging rummaging through the president’s past was criticized for straying far from his original mandate to examine a failed land deal in Arkansas known as Whitewater. The Starr probe uncovered Clinton’s sexual relationship with a White House intern, which led to his impeachment by the Republican-led House of Representatives in December 1998.
Radek caught much of the Republican criticism in Congress over the perceived political motivations of the Justice Department.
In a congressional hearing in June 2000 to examine the independent counsel statute, which Congress had allowed to expire in 1999, then-Government Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) read from a memo provided by Freeh accusing Radek of having said he was under pressure to slow-walk the fundraising investigation because Reno’s “job might hang in the balance.”
“That’s a pretty serious statement,” Burton said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” a few days after the Burton hearing, then-host Tim Russert asked Radek whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. Radek responded that no one in the department had ever asked him that question, recalled Jarrett. When Russert pressed, Radek responded that he was, in fact, a Republican, Jarrett said.
Radek didn’t weather the controversy. In 2001, after Republican George W. Bush took office, then-Criminal Division Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff replaced him as head of Public Integrity. “The thought was that fresh energy might be useful,” Chertoff told the New York Times in 2009.
The Times story detailed the deterioration of the office after Radek was replaced with outsiders who had worked for Chertoff when he was the New Jersey U.S. Attorney, culminating in the botched 2008 prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that was later dropped, amid fierce recriminations and a major black eye for the section.
From 2001 until his retirement in 2005, Radek served as Senior Counsel in the Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section.
A graduate of Marquette University and the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Radek was a passionate golfer and fan of the music of Elvis Presley, according to his obituary. In 2000, he received the Criminal Division’s highest award, the Henry E. Petersen Memorial Award, for making a lasting contribution to the division and for exemplifying character, diligence, courage, and professionalism.
He was co-author, along with Peter Henning, of “The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption Cases: The Law and Legal Strategies,” published in 2011 by Oxford University Press.
He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Jill; his children Megan, Matthew and Caitlin; his sister Caren, and numerous nieces, nephews and cousins.