David Margolis, a colorful Justice Department lawyer who directed the prosecutions of dozens of mobsters as head of the organized crime section and later was called on to resolve sensitive ethical and disciplinary matters, including high-profile cases that involved the White House and CIA, died July 12 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Virginia. He was 76.
He had a heart-related illness, said his wife, Debby Margolis.
Margolis, who began working for the Justice Department in 1965 during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was the longest-serving lawyer currently with the department. After leading the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section from 1979 to 1993, he became associate deputy attorney general, a position he held until his death.
In addition to planning prosecution efforts against organized-crime figures, Margolis took part in cases involving foreign dictators and the Abscam trials of bribe-taking congressmen. He later investigated controversies surrounding the death of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr., accusations of torture during the George W. Bush administration and the leaking of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.
“We would give all the hairballs to Margolis , all the hardest, most difficult problems, the most politically controversial,” FBI Director James Comey, a former deputy attorney general, told The Washington Post last year.
Margolis was also known for his humor, his outlandish wardrobe and his institutional memory of the Justice Department, which he joined when Nicholas Katzenbach was attorney general and J. Edgar Hoover was director of the FBI. Over the years, Margolis served under 19 attorneys general.
In a department where conservative dress is the norm, Margolis cut an eccentric figure. He wore pink leisure suits, cowboy boots and, for years, shoulder-length hair.
“There were times, more than once, when we were sitting in his office, and he was called away to a meeting with the attorney general,” Paul Coffey, who worked with Margolis for 30 years and succeeded him as chief of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, recalled Wednesday. “He was wearing bell-bottom blue jeans, a baseball T-shirt with a picture of Jerry Jeff Walker on the front, and the words ’Whiskey Bent and Hellbound’ on the back. He wore that outfit constantly. He’d go up to meetings with the AGs dressed like that, with perfect aplomb. It was almost a rite of passage for the AGs to show that they could be flexible.”
Margolis could be the exception with his dress, Coffey said, because he stood out as a prosecutor and legal thinker: “He was so good, he became a universe of his own.”
During his 24 years with the organized crime section - including 14 years as chief - Margolis and his team of about 160 federal prosecutors won convictions against all five of New York’s major Cosa Nostra families, plus the leading crime syndicates in Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans.
“We really brought the mob to its knees all over the country,” Margolis told The Post.
In the early 1980s, the Justice Department ruled that all prosecutions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, had to go through the OCRS and Margolis. As a result, he took part in cases against deposed Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, federal judges and congressmen caught up in the Abscam bribery case. Ultimately, seven members of Congress were convicted.
“In the 30 years I worked with him,” Coffey said of Margolis, “I never once saw him lose his composure or raise his voice in anger. When things were important, and there was a crisis underway, he never, ever lost his cool.”
In 1993, after Foster died in an apparent suicide, Margolis was one of two lawyers from the Justice Department assigned to examine Foster’s White House office for any evidence of a suicide note or possible extortion. Once he got there, Margolis later testified, he was kept at arm’s length by White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, who decided what the Justice Department lawyers were allowed to see.
Two years later, in politically charged hearings, Margolis told a Senate panel that he was prevented from doing his job by Nussbaum.
It took the White House six days to produce the torn pieces of paper that proved to be Foster’s suicide note. Margolis told the Senate panel that if he had been permitted to conduct a proper search, “I’d either have found it or I’d be out on my tail.”
The shadow surrounding Foster’s death continues to haunt the legacy of President Bill Clinton.
In 2010, Margolis released a 69-page report evaluating a ruling by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility concerning decisions made by lawyers in the administration of President George W. Bush. The OPR’s ethics lawyers found that two lawyers in the Bush White House, John Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, had demonstrated “professional misconduct” by providing legal justification of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation methods.
Margolis rejected that finding. The lawyers may have used “flawed,” ideologically motivated reasoning, but he determined that their advice did not constitute misconduct that merited disciplinary action.
It was, Margolis said, the decision “I agonized over most. I knew it would be controversial whichever way it came down.”
David Margolis was born Dec. 18, 1939, in Hartford, Conn. His father was superintendent of maintenance for the public school system, and his mother was a teacher.
He graduated from Brown University in 1961 and from Harvard Law School in 1964. He worked on organized crime cases in Hartford, Cleveland and Brooklyn before coming to Washington in 1976.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, the former Debby Lipman of Reston; two daughters, Kim Margolis of Bristow, Virginia, and Cheryl Margolis of Fairfax County, Virginia; a brother; and three grandchildren.
Margolis was a gifted raconteur with what Coffey described as “a photographic memory for names and places and events.”
He also never missed a chance to tell a joke. In 1995, Margolis appeared before a congressional committee shortly after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. He was asked if he was comfortable.
“No,” he said. “But I make a living.”