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VOL. 121 | NO. 75 | Thursday, April 6, 2006

Kustoff Puts Leadership Skills to the Test As Lead Prosecutor for West Tennessee

By Andrew Ashby

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POISED FOR SUCCESS: David Kustoff is the newly appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. Colleagues describe him as a dedicated, consummate professional who also has a sense of humor. -- Photograph By Andrew Ashby

David F. Kustoff, the recently appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, is settling in after almost a week on the job. President George W. Bush nominated Kustoff in February and the U.S. Senate confirmed him in mid-March to replace Terry Harris, who recently accepted a position as vice president for security for FedEx Express, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp. As such, Harris is responsible for security operations throughout the company's global network.

Kustoff now is the top law enforcement official in the western part of the state, which includes Memphis and Jackson and extends almost to the Tennessee River.

Kustoff said his office's major initiatives are to protect citizens from terrorist activity, as well as prosecute public corruption, white collar crimes, felons who possess firearms and to protect the United States in civil suits.

One of the main traits he needs is leadership ability because he has to manage close to 40 prosecutors and their administrative staffs, he said.

"I learned that through my practice and through my life experiences," Kustoff said.

Problem-solver by nature

Kustoff always has known he wanted to be a lawyer. It didn't hurt that his father, Bernie, is an attorney, and was very encouraging about his son's desire to study law.

"Growing up, I saw what he did and how exciting his practice was," Kustoff said. "It seemed like a natural fit to be able, in private practice, to work with real people and help solve their problems."

"I'm not a real political person, but I chose to get involved with David's campaign because I really felt like he was in the race to do the right thing and not for the power of the position. That spoke volumes for what he's about."
- Attorney Mike Keeney
of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson and Mitchell PLLC

Kustoff was born and raised in Memphis. He graduated from White Station High School in 1985 and then earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Memphis in 1989. He graduated from the university's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 1992.

After college, Kustoff went into private practice for 13 years.

Jim Strickland was his partner in Kustoff and Strickland PLLC. Strickland had met Kustoff in the mid-1980s when they were both students at U of M. Both were active in student organizations and joined the same fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega. They both are still big fans of the U of M.

"He's a great guy," Strickland said. "On a personal level, he's got a great sense of humor. He has very diverse interests and is very personable."

Strickland also said that although Kustoff is one of the hardest-working lawyers he's ever met, coming to work with him was fun. They worked together seven years.

"He's very focused and driven, as well as honest and ethical," Strickland said. "I really enjoyed working with him because we're friends and I got to work on cases every day with him. It made work enjoyable. I'm glad for him, but we'll miss having him around here."

The power and the glory

One of the biggest challenges Kustoff faces now is the volume of information he'll have to review and understand.

"I would imagine they have a lot going on that we the public don't know about," Strickland said. "Having to learn all of that to be the U.S. Attorney is a big challenge."

Also, Kustoff will have to manage several lawyers and their staff members.

"He's always doggedly pursued things," Strickland said. "He's also a quick study and has had a lot of different experience in a lot of different areas. He's been able to do that successfully, which is not easy."

During his time in private practice, Kustoff was active in the public sector. He was President Bush's campaign manager for Tennessee in 2000 and 2004. He also chaired U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's successful senate campaign in 2002. Alexander defeated opponent Bob Clement, D-Tenn., in the race.

Mike Keeney, an attorney with Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson and Mitchell PLLC, helped with Kustoff's own congressional campaign two years ago.

"I'm not a real political person, but I chose to get involved with David's campaign because I really felt like he was in the race to do the right thing and not for the power of the position," he said. "That spoke volumes for what he's about."

Keeney said he became friends with Kustoff through practicing law. The two worked with and against each other. Keeney said Kustoff was a very thorough and competent lawyer, whether he was on your side or not.

"He's one of the lawyers that it's a joy to be on the other side of the case," Keeney said. "He is a true professional. While he can advocate the position of his client, he never does it to the extent where he alienates the other side."

Part of that is because of Kustoff's ability to recognize the downside of certain decisions, Keeney said. He takes his time to make sure he does the right thing.

"Some people fly off the handle and get upset about things," Keeney said. "David's not one to do that. He's really got his head on straight."

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