WASHINGTON – Jack Keeney, a prosecutor who served nearly 60 years in a storied career at the Justice Department, was praised at a retirement celebration Friday as an attorney of impeccable judgment who "set the gold standard" for fairness in federal law enforcement.
The longest serving prosecutor in U.S. history, the 88-year-old Keeney joined the Justice Department in 1951 when Harry Truman was president.
"I was two months old and already looking up to Mr. Keeney," joked Attorney General Eric Holder, one of 20 attorneys general who turned to Keeney for advice over the years.
For nearly the last 40 years, he has been a top manager in the criminal division and has overseen countless prosecutions of corrupt public officials, mobsters and racketeers — all the while shunning the limelight and public attention.
Hundreds of friends and colleagues including federal judges who served with him and political appointees and career attorneys from administrations as far back as President Gerald Ford's paid tribute in the department's Great Hall to Keeney, who was described by FBI Director Robert Mueller as "a true wise man." And his rich experiences are not limited to Justice. Keeney survived having his B-17 shot down over Nazi Germany in World War II and was a prisoner of war until US forces liberated his camp.
"I stayed at the Justice Department because of people like Jack," said Robert Sharp, the former deputy chief of the criminal division's money laundering and asset forfeiture section who spent 32 years at the department.
Holder spoke of Keeney's longevity, his role as a mentor of young attorneys and the awe in which he is held by the legal community.
Keeney said he has been "privileged to work with great people" during his service under 12 presidents and 20 attorneys general.
Keeney spent nine years in the department's organized crime and racketeering section, arriving there as Attorney General Robert Kennedy vastly expanded the section to carry out an unrelenting campaign against the Mafia. Keeney recalled that one of his assignments was to attack the illegal skimming of profits from Las Vegas casinos, but he lamented he wasn't able to completely eliminate the practice.
Later as chief of the fraud section, Keeney negotiated a mutual assistance treaty with Switzerland on criminal matters, an achievement that gave a boost to the war on organized crime through the exposure of secret Swiss bank accounts.
Several years ago, the department took the extraordinary step of naming one of the buildings in downtown Washington in Keeney's honor.
"Since 1951, he has been the heart and soul of the department's criminal division," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who now runs the division.
The department produced a short documentary of his life which ended with a recent shot of him walking out of the building using his cane. The theme from the television series "Law and Order" played on the soundtrack. And the crowd at the retirement party erupted in cheers.