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Justice Department Pick Faces Confirmation Battle

Lawyer James Cole has operated behind the scenes for more than three decades in Washington, letting his high-profile clients do the talking.

Now, as the nominee to serve as the deputy attorney general, he's the one likely to be making headlines, starting with his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Cole is in line to manage the department's 100,000 employees, field threats from domestic terrorists and lead investigations into financial fraud. But Senate Republicans are signaling they could put up a fight.

AIG Ties

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Cole's opinions alone are controversial at a time the country is fighting terrorism.

Cole defended a Saudi prince in a lawsuit filed by families whose relatives were killed in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"He's written an op-ed, for example, that suggests he believes the 9/11 attacks were criminal acts, not acts of war," Sessions said. "He apparently didn't do so well with his oversight of AIG."

Five years ago, insurance giant AIG brought Cole in to ensure it was complying with the law. That followed a run-in with prosecutors over its bookkeeping. Although Cole was involved with the company's books, he didn't flag the complex financial transactions that nearly brought down AIG two years ago.

Larry Barcella, a Washington lawyer who has known Cole for decades, says there is no way Cole could have known about the AIG mess. "Given how complex the transactions were that brought AIG to its knees, I'm not sure that anybody without deep technical experience would necessarily have seen it," Barcella said.

Controversial Op-Ed

Cole's critics also point to his approach on national security.

In his op-ed in Legal Times, on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Cole compared the attacks to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The piece had more to do with protecting the rights of the accused than protecting the country from terrorism.

Cole also represented Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz. Relatives of the Sept. 11 victims sued Saudi royals, including the prince, alleging that they helped to finance terrorism. A judge threw out the case, but it hasn't been forgotten.

Debra Burlingame, whose brother was a pilot on one of the planes that crashed Sept. 11, opposes Cole's nomination. "He would be the guy who would be leading the charge for the entire department in the war on terror and I think he is grossly ill-suited," Burlingame said.

Support For Cole

But Cole has strong defenders, too. Among them is Attorney General Eric Holder, with whom he goes back decades, to when they both worked as hot-shot young attorneys prosecuting corruption after Watergate.

At a news conference last week, Holder told reporters that "Jim Cole is going to be a great deputy attorney general."

"To have him onboard in a confirmed position is extremely important to the running of the Justice Department," Holder said.

Cole has won support from a broad coalition of groups, including the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers. The American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section, which Cole once led, also wrote senators a letter urging his confirmation.

Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell said Cole is a good fit because of his experience. "He has a long, trusting, steady, solid relationship with the attorney general, something that goes back to when all of us were young pup lawyers in the Department of Justice," Lowell said.

The lesson of Cole may be this: Any lawyer who has spent 30 years pursuing high-stakes cases in Washington will develop his share of detractors. And they will reappear exactly when someone is on track to get a plum government job.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.