WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, who investigated President Jimmy Carter’s brother while in the administration and who later became one of the nation’s most expensive private attorneys, has died. He was 87.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Civiletti died Sunday evening of Parkinson’s at his home in Lutherville, Maryland.
In a statement Monday night, Attorney General Merrick Garland, who worked at the Justice Department with Civiletti in 1979, hailed his former boss's “skill, integrity and dedication.”
“I would describe myself as a hardworking lawyer with good judgment who gets things done,” Civiletti told the Baltimore Sun not long after he became, in 2005, the nation’s first lawyer to charge $1,000 an hour.
Civiletti interrupted a distinguished career as a Baltimore attorney in March 1977 to join the Justice Department as the assistant attorney general overseeing its criminal division. He was named deputy attorney general in May 1978, and Carter chose him as Attorney General Griffin B. Bell’s replacement in July 1979.
Civiletti often dealt with politically delicate cases, including investigations of presidential brother Billy Carter’s dealings with Libya, Carter friend Bert Lance, influence buying by South Korean agents and allegations of cocaine use by two Carter aides.
Billy Carter accepted $220,000 from Libya but failed to register as a Libyan agent, sparking investigations by the Justice Department and the Senate. Under an agreement following a lawsuit by the department, Carter registered as a Libyan agent.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigated whether Civiletti violated any laws or regulations by briefly mentioning the matter to the president; it later found Civiletti had not, though a Senate subcommittee concluded he had not acted in a professional manner.
In investigating accusations leveled at White House aides Hamilton Jordan and Tim Kraft, Civiletti became the first attorney general to initiate the appointment of a special prosecutor under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. He later said the act had too low a threshold and had wasted money as well as unfairly damaged the reputations of Jordan and Kraft, neither of whom was ever charged.
Attorney general for just 17 months, Civiletti may have left his deepest mark on the Justice Department by issuing public attorney general guidelines with specific legal policies and procedures for government investigations and prosecutions — setting down for all to see the practices that had either never been codified or were handed down for years by word of mouth or in isolated memos.
He considered one of these documents — the Principles of Federal Prosecution, a blueprint for when and how federal prosecutors would bring criminal cases — to be his most lasting contribution.
In his statement Monday, Garland said: “Attorney General Civiletti wrote into policy the norms established to ensure the Department’s independence, fair application of our laws, and adherence to the Rule of Law. Today, thanks in large part to him, those norms continue to guide the work of every Justice Department employee, every single day."
Civiletti oversaw two legal efforts aimed at responding to the Iranian hostage crisis. With Americans held in Tehran, he put into action Carter’s order to deport Iranian immigrants in the country illegally. He also argued for the release of the hostages before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
One of the last attorneys general to dispense with a bodyguard of FBI agents, Civiletti did not wrap himself in the trappings of high public office. Even as attorney general, he left the office alone nearly every day, at times whistling “As Time Goes By,” and he could be seen taking a public bus home. Occasionally, he was spotted shopping alone at downtown department stores on his lunch hour.
After leaving the Justice Department in January 1981, Civiletti resumed his legal career in Baltimore. He specialized in commercial litigation, banking, white-collar crime, government regulation and corporate governance.
After the National Law Journal reported that Civiletti billed clients at a rate of $1,000 an hour, he told the Baltimore Sun, “As a lawyer, I always said I couldn’t afford myself.”
In May 2006, Civiletti stepped down as chair of the 470-attorney firm Venable LLP, which by then was recording annual revenue of $239 million. He remained a member of the firm’s board and continued to practice as a corporate investigations attorney.
Benjamin Richard Civiletti was born July 17, 1935, in Peekskill, New York. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 1957 and a law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1961.
He was named an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore in 1962. Two years later he joined the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard, where he spent the next 13 years, becoming a partner and leading its litigation department.
Civiletti had been mentioned as a possible replacement for Bell several months before Bell resigned amid a Cabinet shakeup in July 1979. Unlike others among the five Cabinet officers who left, Bell had retained Carter’s favor — he had wanted to depart before the 1980 presidential campaign got underway — and was able to name his successor.
Civiletti, an avid golfer and gardener, was married to Gaile Lundgren; they raised two sons, Benjamin and Andrew, and a daughter, Lynne.
Former Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report.