The next time someone complains about unelected bureaucrats in Washington, tell them to review the career of David Margolis, who died Tuesday at the age of 76. Over the course of fifty years at the Department of Justice, Margolis became a legend for his defense of the agency’s independence and a hero to all those federal employees who work every day to ensure government serves the interests of the public, not politicians.
“David Margolis was the United States Department of Justice,” said FBI director James Comey in a statement Wednesday after Margolis’ death. “’Irreplaceable’ is usually hyperbole; here, it is simply true.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “David took on our nation’s most pressing issues and navigated our government’s most complex challenges. To generations of Justice Department employees, he was a respected colleague, a trusted advisor and most importantly, a beloved friend.”
Margolis famously confronted White House lawyer Bernard Nussbaum in the wake of the suicide of Vince Foster during the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency. When Nussbaum tried to limit Margolis’ attempts to find a suicide note or other indication of how Foster died, Margolis said, “If this is the way the search is going, I might as well go back to my office and you can mail me the results of the investigation.”
Margolis also played a role in bringing to light the politically-motivated firing of U.S. prosecutors by George W. Bush’s White House, and the efforts by top Justice department officials to cover up the motivations for the firings. In the spring of 2007, Margolis told Senate Judiciary committee staffers that he was shocked to learn earlier that year the extent of the collaboration between White House political officials, including aides to Karl Rove, and senior political appointees at Justice, over the firing of the prosecutors.
Margolis’ reputation was bolstered by the iconoclastic path he cut on his way to the senior ranks of the Justice Department. He started out as a mob-busting prosecutor in Connecticut, famed for his quick wit and non-conformist choice of workplace clothes. Good reviews of his career can be found at the Washington Post and NPR.
Perhaps the best testament to his abilities came from career federal prosecutor John Durham, who relied on Margolis’ judgment in handling tough assignments as an independent investigator of government controversies, including FBI corruption in the Whitey Bulger case and the 2005 destruction of CIA interrogation tapes. Durham told the Hartford Courant, “The interesting thing is that in real life, David was even bigger and brighter and wiser than his legend.”