By Will Sullivan
In these contentious times, where partisan intrigue roils Washington and the air of impending scandal lurks with each tweet and news conference, the concept of executing duty on behalf of justice is a fickle thing. Justice’s tenets—blind, balanced, righteous—seem positively anachronistic today.
It’s reassuring, then, to speak with Joseph Russoniello, the former FBI agent and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, whose storied 50-year Bay Area legal career has been grounded in the immutable rule of law.
“I’ve been comfortable throughout the work that I’ve done because basically, I feel like I have lived up to that expectation, my client’s expectation—I’m doing the best that I can for them under the facts that I’m given,” Russoniello says from his 12th-story office in the Financial District law firm of Browne George Ross LLP, where he continues working cases and mentoring attorneys.
This principled, focused approach helped him seize timely opportunities in pursuing a self-professedly unorthodox path through the legal profession. He’s oscillated back and forth between the public and the private sectors and between prosecution and defense, ever mindful of working across the aisle and above partisanship.
“The rule of law is nonpartisan,” Russoniello remarks. “It doesn’t have a party label.”
A New Jersey native with the “sharp elbows” and quick wits of the East Coast, Russoniello’s San Francisco tenure began fortuitously in the District Attorney’s office under the leadership of Jack Ferdon. After a grueling drive across the country, beset with driving rain, sleet, ice and treacherous oil slicks, he arrived in the Bay on a sunny November 7, 1967—the day Joe Alioto was elected mayor. And like many a transplant, he immediately fell in love.
“I put the top down on my car, the convertible,” Russoniello recalls. “And I said, ‘You know, there’s a message here.’”
His California journey came mere minutes from ending with only that sun-drenched anecdote as a souvenir for the trip home. Having tapped all his contacts seeking connections for employment opportunities and nearly out of money after 30 days in San Francisco, he was packing his car to return to New Jersey when the phone rang at the boarding house where he was staying at Sutter and Grant. The landlady yelled out the window that he had an important call. Racing upstairs, Russoniello picked up the phone to the voice of Ferdon’s assistant, who asked him if he wanted a job. “I showed up the next day, I was sworn in, and if he had called a half hour later or even 15 minutes later, I would’ve been on the road on the way back to New Jersey.”
That call launched an illustrious arc that first saw Russoniello prosecute cases in the DA’s office, tapping his experience working fraud cases for the FBI, before a six-year stint in the private sector at law firm Cooley, Godward, Castro, Huddleson & Tatum (now Cooley LLP) where he again investigated fraud, which had become “if not a talent, certainly a field of expertise,” and rose quickly to partner within three years. Next came perhaps his other big break—what Russoniello claims he first thought was a terrible professional mistake. Running for District Attorney, he finished fourth out of a field of five—but as the only Republican in the field, he caught notice from local Republican activists. And when Reagan was elected President, they approached him about the U.S. Attorney position for the Northern District, which stretches from Monterey County to the Oregon border and is home to more than 15 million people.
“This was kind of a pretty big step,” Russoniello says, “when you realize that the U.S. Attorney’s offices in the [Jimmy] Carter years had been basically shrunken in size and in importance. The reaction of some of my partners at Cooley was, ‘What would you do that for? That’s such a backwater, that’s not going to get you anywhere.’ But my wife, Moira, and I decided that if we didn’t do it, who else would?”
From 1982 until his resignation in 1990, Russoniello prosecuted a number of high-profile civil and criminal cases focused on fraud, espionage, public corruption and corporate espionage—including cases against Hitachi and Mitsubishi for theft of IBM’s corporate secrets.
Perhaps most famously, Russoniello personally prosecuted the case of Larry Layton for the 1978 People’s Temple murder of Congressman Leo Ryan in Jonestown, Guyana. The killings and the subsequent mass suicides resulted in the greatest loss of American civilian life by deliberate act before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
As his compass rose, his work ethic and principled stance, coupled with his passion for mentorship, helped Russoniello build the Northern District into what many regarded as the flagship of the U.S. Attorney’s office. He claims his approach to courting excellence was simple: If he brought the best lawyers available into the office and convinced the agency he had the talent to handle the toughest cases, they’d bring those cases to the district and thereby convince the courts they were ready for primetime.
“The resources that we were given, the kinds of cases that were developed, the results that we had, it was really remarkable, and I think we did a lot of good,” he says. “The people we were taking out, and sending to prison, were bad guys who had poisoned communities. And I always looked at it as though these were civil rights cases because they had enslaved whole neighborhoods, keeping people from being able to enjoy the freedoms and the liberties of living in the United States.”
fter Russoniello left the office, he returned to Cooley as senior counsel for seven years during which he also served as dean of San Francisco Law School. But in 2007, when a vacancy occurred in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this time under President George W. Bush, Russoniello submitted his application, believing the office needed a steadying head to overcome a period of turmoil. “Guns, gangs and drugs was sort of a theme of what we did in the 2008-to-2010 period,” Russoniello explains. “A lot more of the resources were directed to trying to get guns off the street, break up the gangs, basically return the neighborhoods to the residents, and we had some success.”
And perhaps it’s this deep experience working across issues, eras and administrations that allows Russoniello to take a measured look at today’s seemingly ruptured political landscapes. Can justice exist in an era of alternative facts and extreme partisanship?
“The advantage for the U.S. Attorneys, all of us, all of them around the country, is that they owe obedience to the rule of law,” Russoniello answers, without hesitation.
And while he concedes that the country feels fractured and deeply polarized, he’s confident that leadership will help mend the divide. “The Department of Justice can be an extraordinarily important force for providing stability,” he says.
And nothing, he adds, helps more than bringing responsible cases, carefully developed, that express, “whether it’s subliminal or overt, that the rule of law is to be respected and that everyone is subject to it.”
As U.S. Attorney in SF, Russoniello was the boss of Robert Mueller, who’s overseeing the investigation into links between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. “I think it’s great,” he told ABC 7 News. “I think by temperament, by integrity, by background, by experience and by commitment, nobody better than Bob Mueller.”
Russoniello, a spry 75, with a whipcrack memory for names, dates and cases, and dressed as though he might be called to court at any moment—his maroon tie knotted tightly, a blue blazer draped at the ready over his chair—now splits time between the home he shares with Moira on Russian Hill and their property in Napa’s Silverado district. And though he may now be more selective about the time he focuses on his caseload, Russoniello shows no sign of slowing down, attacking a backlog of books with the same intellectual vigor as his legal career.
“I read everything,” he says, rattling off titles and topics ranging from human evolution to Cold War–era espionage. “And I take notes because I can never remember the highlights of what I’ve been reading.” The trait echoes another notable justice-minded notetaker in the news for his diligent accounting of meetings-via-memo and goes lengths to explain an infectious enthusiasm for knowledge.
What keeps him going now is the same principle that has always fueled him throughout his life and gives him confidence that our troubled times are a mere blip in a long upward trend of progress.
“There’s so much of interest that happens every day,” he says. “You don’t really have time to think and mope about it.”