After learning of the death of Jo Ann Harris yesterday, I felt a great sense of loss at someone who was the definition of integrity.
A former assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division under then-Attorney General Janet Reno, Harris was not only the first woman to head that post, she was also an uncompromising fighter to see that the Department reflected nothing less than the best that a Justice official and attorney should be.
I was fortunate enough to know her over the past two years, and in particular, the last 5 months when we would regularly speak about the Report she had co-authored with Mary Harkenrider, investigating allegations of professional misconduct regarding Ken Starr’s Office of Independent Counsel’s handling of Monica Lewinsky.
After sending her a first draft of my article on that Report, one point that she repeatedly stressed: “Mary Harkenrider contributed so much to this. We worked back and forth, back and forth. We were very much a team.”
In a conversation from June regarding her approach to her work on the Lewinsky matter Harris said, “I really feel that federal prosecutors are vulnerable to people who abuse these accusations of misconduct. So, that’s where I’m coming from when I approach something like this investigation.”
While I write and speak on ethics, Harris literally lived them. Although she kept her own personal files on the Office of Special Counsel investigation, she never once shared a single document with me. I had to go through the Freedom of Information process to uncover those documents myself. Once I received them, I would immediately forward them onto her along with verification that I had, indeed, obtained them through proper channels. Only then would she be willing to give me the necessary background about what I had and how it pertained to her investigation.
In the final part of my series on the Report she and Harkenrider worked on for ten months, Harris summed up her thoughts this way: “My fundamental concern here is that a prosecutor’s office has more power and more responsibility in our criminal justice system to see that it is fair and just, and that the public have confidence that it is fair and just. … You can’t be fair and objective without being absolutely dedicated to ethical conduct.”
I can count the number of “straight arrows” – individuals with uncompromising integrity – I have personally known, on one hand. Jo Ann Harris has been and always will be a role model for me and many others on how to act with integrity. That is her greatest legacy.