The past few years have been some of the most tumultuous in the Justice Department's history. Nearly the entire department leadership resigned in a scandal over politicized hiring and firing.
In the controversy and its aftermath, the most important person at the department arguably has been Inspector General Glenn Fine.
Fine has been chief watchdog since December 2000. During that period, his predecessor Michael Bromwich says: "Glenn has had to deal with a series of challenges and issues that I think not only exceed what I faced, but probably have exceeded what any inspector general in any agency has faced over a long period of time."
A Leader On And In The Court
Fine stood out even during his days at Harvard University. Eric Mandelbaum met Fine at the beginning of their freshman year and says that as he struggled to adjust, Fine was confident and welcoming.
"There are a few people … that you meet over the course of Harvard who are really exceptional, and everybody knows why they're there, and Glenn was one of those," Mandelbaum says of his friend.
All of 5-foot-9, Fine was co-captain of Harvard's basketball team and "one of the smoothest, silkiest point guards that any of us had ever seen," Mandelbaum recalls. Fine had "one of the best-looking jump shots I ever saw. And the backspin on the ball, the arc of the ball, the way it would hit the inside of the net, the net would pop up. It was really something to behold."
Fine graduated from Harvard in 1979 and won a Rhodes scholarship. He went to Oxford, then Harvard Law School. He moved to Washington to practice labor and employment law. In the mid-'90s, he applied for a job working for Bromwich at the Justice Department.
"I'd seen his resume, which was an extraordinarily impressive resume," Bromwich says. "But the one thing I'd never seen on anybody else's resume was that he'd been drafted by the San Antonio Spurs."
Bromwich hired Fine in 1995 as special counsel. Soon, Fine became the office's first special investigative counsel and was running a whole investigative unit.
When Bromwich decided to step down after five years, he says it was natural to recommend Glenn Fine to succeed him. No one knew just how big Fine's task would become.
Confronted Challenging Issues
Fine's team has issued reports on harsh interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, on the Justice Department's politicized hiring of career lawyers, and on the FBI's abuse of national security letters. The inspector general's most recent opus was more than 350 pages on the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.
He has other major investigations in the works. One is about the civil rights division. Another focuses on the president's domestic spying program.
Fine's reports are often brutal. They have eviscerated the Justice Department's leadership.
Although Fine was a Clinton appointee, Republicans rarely attack him.
"Evidence is evidence … and you had people who were not behaving properly, and there was waste or fraud or abuse in the system, and it was quantifiable," says Mark Corallo, a Republican strategist. He adds, "You're not going to hear a lot of complaints when the behaviors are admittedly bad."
Corallo was chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft, who served the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, stepped down in August 2007 amid accusations of having politicized law enforcement. Current Attorney General Michael Mukasey pledged at his confirmation hearings that he would follow the rule of law and get partisan politics out of the department's decision-making.
When Fine testifies before Congress, lawmakers from both parties treat him as a hero. They've described him as a model inspector general.
"Glenn Fine has done an outstanding job as inspector general," says Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
He sees Fine's success as a combination of good performance and good timing. "Fine has had more opportunities … to prove his mettle," Specter says.
Fine's reports explain in detail how the Justice Department went off the rails in the last few years.
For his part, Fine says he does not think about the magnitude of his work.
"We try and do our job … as fairly and aggressively as we can," he says of himself and his colleagues. "We take each issue as it comes, and we try and be as thorough as possible. So we don't stop and say, 'This is a historic time or tumultuous time.' Each one has its own challenges."
He's the longest-serving inspector general in the Justice Department's history — and says he has no plans to leave. After all, he says, in this job you're fortunate to be able to do only what you think is right.