Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales gave lawyers and community members a crash course in protecting client interests in times of organizational crisis on July 24 on the second floor of the Krasa Center at Benedictine University.
During his presentation, Gonzales drew on several high-profile inquiries and accusations that put the reputation of the White House on the line during his tenure.
"You may think wrong-doing or ethical lapses may go relatively unnoticed or stay under the radar," Gonzales said. "But that really is a foolish hope based upon a naïve view of the world that no longer exists. In today's culture – instant communication, whether by Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, texting, iMessaging or email – bad news about your organization or client's organization has the potential to spread as quickly and be as damaging as bad news can be to the White House."
Gonzales, who served as White House counsel under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005 and became the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney General, serving from 2005-2007, was invited to speak at Benedictine by the nonpartisan Center for Civic Leadership (CCL). Established in 2005 under the direction of former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, a 1969 Benedictine graduate and Distinguished Fellow, the CCL seeks to shape a new generation of public leaders and responsible citizens.
Gonzales discussed some of the decisions required of both positions that went on behind the scenes, citing a probe into the White House's role in the collapse of Enron, an investigation by the Department of Justice into the unauthorized leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and the 9/11 Commission's evaluation of the government's response before and after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
He also discussed the role of both White House chief of staff and White House counsel in protecting the president from scandals and allegations of wrongdoing – the preferred weapon of choice for the critics of any administration, he said.
During the Bush administration, members of the media questioned whether Bush knew about the absence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq. Today, they want to know how much President Barack Obama knew about the targeting of certain conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service and the National Security Administration's monitoring of communications from world leaders.
"I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to work in Washington, where success is rare, and every little misstep or stumble is magnified," Gonzales said. "Contributing to this theory that often envelopes our nation's capital is the reaction generated by even a whiff of a scandal or wrongdoing. Right or wrong, this has become the regular order of business these days."
At the beginning of his job as White House counsel, Gonzales issued a series of protocols to White House staff. The protocols outlined permissible ethical behaviors and practices, and were designed to instill "the highest culture of ethical behavior expected by the president."
To help insulate the president from certain problems and scandals, he limited the president's knowledge on certain issues and recommended the president not have an email account or use a cell phone. This practice allows presidents to focus on more pressing issues, and limits the appearance of involvement in a compromising situation, he said.
"Additionally, walling off the president from certain information is sometimes done to ensure political survival, and quite candidly to limit political accountability," Gonzales said. "As counsel, I worked to protect the institutional prerogatives of the presidency while cooperating to the extent possible with investigators."
For the lawyers in attendance, he also stressed the importance of developing a relationship with government investigators, which can lead to a fuller exchange of information and lessen an organization's exposure.
"By providing clear guidance as lawyers, having employers train their employees and senior management in advance of a complaint or investigation, and by cooperating with investigators and regulators, companies and organizations can limit their financial liability and damage to their reputation," Gonzales said.
Reflecting on his career in government that ended in resignation, Gonzales affirmed that even with all the pressures and challenges of the job, he'd volunteer to do it all over again
"Serving as attorney general was the hardest thing I've ever done," Gonzales said. "I suspect it will be the hardest experience of my professional life. But if given the chance, I would do it again because I love this country and all it has done for me. I am the son of a construction worker and a migrant cotton worker, and I became the attorney general of the United States."
Gonzales' words and personal story of success resonated with Benedictine Political Science student Qyle Iftikhar, who is contemplating entering law school after he graduates.
"His story and how someone can rise up from humble beginnings like that is inspirational," Iftikhar said. "Many people will say that, but I think it really is – to see how someone can go on to serve in one of the most important roles in the country.
"The one thing that stood out was his fairness to both sides," he added. "Some people might expect that being a Republican you might be one-sided, but he came out as very fair and honest, and I think that's what stood out to me the most."
Today, Gonzales is the Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law and dean at Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, Tenn., where he teaches First Amendment, National Security, Separation of Powers and Constitutional Law.