Former federal prosecutor Jonathan Kravis ’99: Consider government service

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To the Williams College Class of 2020:

You are graduating into a world facing challenges unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. A global pandemic is sweeping the globe, millions of Americans are unemployed, and our country seems as politically divided now as it has ever been. In these times, the usual graduation themes — look at how far you’ve come, follow your dreams, cherish your college memories, etc. — seem not quite up to the moment.

So let me offer something different instead — two pieces of unsolicited career advice. The first piece of advice: Consider government service.

I know from my own experience how rewarding a career in government service can be. I spent 10 years as a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice. In that job, I had the opportunity to work alongside talented and dedicated lawyers and agents to serve the mission of the Department, first by prosecuting violent crimes, and later by investigating corruption by federal, state, and local officials. I went into work every day knowing that my job was to serve justice, to do what was right to the best of my ability. 

You will have similar opportunities. Now more than ever, our country and the world need talented, dedicated, hardworking public servants. Federal, state and local governments are facing unprecedented challenges. Whatever your chosen field — law, medicine, science, education, business — you can help. For some of you, the chance to serve in government may present itself in the natural course of your career. For others, you may have to look a little harder to find it. Either way, government service will allow you to serve a greater good and to help make your community a better place.

And this brings me to my second piece of advice. When you do find the right opportunity to work in government, remember why you took the job in the first place. 

About three months ago, I resigned from my job as a DOJ prosecutor. That decision was the most painful of my life. I made it because I believed that the Department had abandoned its commitment to equal justice under the law in one of my criminal cases. In that case, the defendant, Roger Stone, was tried and convicted of obstruction of Congress, false statements and witness tampering, based on evidence that he had lied repeatedly to a congressional committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and then threatened a witness who could have exposed those lies.

In February, the Justice Department filed a sentencing memorandum, signed by all four prosecutors in the case, recommending a sentence of seven to nine years, within the range set by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. In my experience, the Justice Department staunchly defends sentences within the guidelines’ range, particularly for defendants (like Stone) who are convicted at trial, and especially for defendants (like Stone) who repeatedly demonstrate disrespect for the judicial system.

The next morning, the president posted a tweet criticizing the sentencing recommendation as a “miscarriage of justice.” Later that day, the Justice Department submitted a revised memo revoking the original recommendation and proposing that Stone receive a much shorter sentence. All four career prosecutors who had tried Stone withdrew from the case, and I resigned from the Department entirely.

So, this is my second piece of career advice to you. If you do decide to pursue government service — and I hope that you will — stay true to the principles that led you to serve. For me, that principle was our Nation’s commitment to equal justice under law, the idea that the government makes decisions in criminal cases based on facts and law, not on the defendant’s power or wealth or political connections. I resigned from a job I loved because I was not willing to serve a department that would so easily abdicate its responsibility to this principle.

For most of you, this day will never come. But some of you may come to find, as I did, that the institution you serve is no longer faithful to the values that led you to serve it in the first place. If that happens, I hope you will remember that your principles are more important than any job, and that sometimes you best serve an institution that you love by leaving it.

Good luck. I know that you will do great things. And when you do, I will be one of the many proud alumni cheering you on.

Jonathan Kravis ’99 is a former federal prosecutor.