US Attorneys Lose ‘Deft’ Problem Solver as Wilkinson Exits

When Monty Wilkinson retired this summer, the nation’s 93 US attorneys lost a calming presence in Washington who talked them through messy conflicts and guided their requests through Justice Department headquarters.

Wilkinson took calls from chief prosecutors at seemingly all hours as head of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Conversations ranged from requests for more line prosecutors or equipment, a heads up before a planned search warrant on a public official, or details of an attorney’s misconduct.

He excelled at advocating for them to DOJ leaders, while never losing his ability to keep a US attorney in line, former department officials said. Wilkinson’s legacy as a facilitator highlights the unheralded influence of an office that’s the glue between the attorney general and a disparate law enforcement field.

“Any time a US attorney felt like they weren’t being heard by either Main Justice, the AG’s office or the (deputy AG’s) office, Monty was there to listen to them and to provide counsel in terms of how they could either get their point across or how they could get an audience with the appropriate person,” said Channing Phillips, a former US attorney in Washington and Wilkinson’s longtime friend.

While finding a successor with comparably deep institutional knowledge may be difficult for Attorney General Merrick Garland, Justice Department veterans say it’s essential to stress Wilkinson’s motto that the most important word in the office’s title is “for”—that it works for, not over, US attorneys.

Prior EOUSA directors tried to assert greater control over US attorney’s offices, “and that has always been met with resistance,” said John Walsh, the former US attorney for Colorado under President Barack Obama. “And Monty understood that instinctively and understood that the best way to make the whole system work was to be there in a supportive role.”

Holder Ties

EOUSA, which has roughly 400 employees, serves as a central hub in providing a range of assistance and oversight for US attorneys’ offices. That includes budgeting, training, and evaluations.

Wilkinson, 62, led the executive office during the Obama and Biden administrations, and served in numerous other legal and administrative roles over 30 years at DOJ and the US attorney’s office in Washington.

He’s long been linked with Eric Holder. The former attorney general was his boss in four different capacities, starting when Wilkinson clerked for Holder in 1989 when he was a DC Superior Court judge. This gave Wilkinson clout when Holder first elevated him to EOUSA director in 2014.

“The personal relationship he had with me allowed him to have really frank conversations—Eric and Monty conversations—about the strengths, weaknesses of a particular US attorney,” Holder said in an interview. “The ability to close the door with Monty—on the fifth floor, my personal office—and say, ‘hey, what’s the deal, whats going on here?’”

US attorneys are the top law enforcement officials in their districts and have autonomy to determine local priorities, but ultimately serve at the pleasure of the attorney general.

Acting AG

Donald Trump’s first Attorney General Jeff Sessions replaced him as EOUSA director, a career position. While it wasn’t unexpected, Wilkinson had been eager to stay on board, recalled several of his friends and past colleagues.

“I think it’s safe to say the move was not his choice or to his liking,” said Lee Lofthus, who retired last year as DOJ’s chief administrative official.

So Lofthus brought him on as his aide at the Justice Management Division in 2017. That led to Wilkinson playing a central role in navigating the department through pandemic-induced challenges.

At Holder’s urging, Wilkinson was selected as acting attorney general prior to Garland’s confirmation. A testament to his even-keeled approach, he was trusted with the post during a particularly tumultuous transition shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Once sworn in, Garland restored Wilkinson to his perch at his former office, where he cemented his reputation for wielding soft power.

Wilkinson, who’s known for avoiding the limelight, declined to be interviewed for this article through an intermediary.

Enabled Resolution

When disputes would arise among US attorney’s offices, such as jurisdictional battles on big cases, Wilkinson deferred to the deputy attorney general for final decisions. He would instead establish the process that enabled resolution.

“Some US attorneys can be pretty animated, and Monty had a way of leveling out emotions or the volatility of situations,” said John Huber, Utah’s former US attorney.

Those working alongside Wilkinson saw how he’d advance US attorney needs by packaging them favorably at department headquarters.

“He worked hard at building coalitions and socializing issues within the department,” said Andrew Goldsmith, a former associate in the deputy attorney general’s office. “He was very sensitive to the dynamics inside the building—what could work, what arguments would appeal to the then-current administration.”

That included applying a “deft touch” to help offices dealing with “tricky criminal discovery-related issues,” Goldsmith said.

But Holder said that when a US attorney needed approval for something that wouldn’t “fly at Main Justice,” such as a chief prosecutor pushing for unnecessary office construction, Wilkinson volunteered to deliver the bad news. Or, when Holder learned that his signature criminal justice initiative may not have buy-in from a particular US attorney, Wilkinson told “this person to toe the line,” Holder added.

Avoiding Conflicts

Wilkinson was routinely a US attorney’s first call to deal with dysfunction inside their office, but he’d also advise new chief prosecutors how to avoid conflicts before they begin.

Barbara McQuade, the Detroit-based US attorney under Obama, returned to DOJ headquarters earlier in the Biden administration to help Wilkinson lead an orientation for new US attorneys. That’s where she saw him “caution prudence” rather than immediately making “dramatic changes.”

Despite viewing his primary role as an advocate for US attorneys, Wilkinson still served at the direction of the attorney general. He would need to diplomatically inform chief prosecutors when they’d lost to a competing district for newly available personnel funds.

And his loyalty to all 93 top prosecutors hasn’t always been felt by the thousands of line prosecutors who comprise their staffs.

Adam Hanna, vice president of the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, credited Wilkinson’s willingness to listen to his concerns on behalf of members. But Hanna said Wilkinson could’ve leveraged EOUSA to advocate more forcefully for assistant US attorneys on pay and work-life issues.

Maintaining satisfaction within a complex bureaucracy wasn’t easy.

Budgetary decisions were especially tense, with some offices always getting more and others less. But that’s where his communication skills shined, Lofthus said.

“The key to doing that with success and grace is to share the big picture and bring them into the process,” Lofthus added. “Monty had that skill, and I think DOJ leadership will no doubt want to try and replicate that skill with the next director.”


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