Before he became a partner of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, one of L.A.'s largest law firms, Robert Bonner had distinguished himself throughout decades of public service, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Georgetown law school graduate and former U.S. Attorney and U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California also headed up the Drug Enforcement Administration under the first President Bush. Months before 9/11, Bonner was nominated by George W. Bush to be the 17th Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. When the Department of Homeland Security was formed in 2003, Bonner oversaw the merger of some 41,000 personnel. He became Customs and Border Protection commissioner. When the one-time Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Navy retired from Washington in November, he came back to the law firm that had been his home throughout the 1990s. Bonner maintains an office in Washington, but he's now on the other side, defending corporations against federal and state prosecutions.

Question: How did you get interested in the law?
Answer:
Growing up in Wichita, Kan., I was a science major and on track for a career in chemistry. In my sophomore year at college, I realized my math skills were more rote learning than conceptual understanding, so I switched to political science. I grew up with the law around me: my father went to University of Kansas Law School, and had a general practice with his two bothers. I also had a great uncle on my mother's side who was a California District Court of Appeals Judge. He built a house in Pasadena in 1930. Years later, when it came on the market, I bought it.


Q: What made you come out to Los Angeles?
A:
The Georgetown law school faculty encouraged graduates with strong academic records I was in the top 10 percent of my class to do law clerkships. I was a kid from Kansas who had heard all these stories about Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and thought California sounded great. I took a one-year clerkship for Albert Lee Stephens Jr., a federal district judge in Los Angeles. This was back when federal judges only had one clerk. Judge Stephens became a great mentor.


Q: Why have you gone back and forth between the public and private sector?
A:
To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, "one can live greatly in the practice of law," and I've been fortunate with some incredible opportunities over my career. The motivation to public service comes from my parents; they inculcated the idea that if you're lucky enough to have had education, ability, and opportunity, it's your obligation to give back to society.


Q: What are the main differences between government and private practice?
A:
Your client in government is quite literally the American people. You are duty-bound to put the interests of society first. When I was a U.S. Attorney, people would ask whom I consult with and I would point to the American flag behind my desk. Whatever is in the best interest of the nation determines your course of action. The same cannot be said of private practice, where you do everything within the bounds of ethics to advance the needs of your client. The other big difference is compensation. No position in government comes anywhere near private practice.


Q: You were in Washington on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. What were your memories from that day?
A:
I had an office on the fourth floor of the Treasury Department, working as a consultant until I was confirmed as the Customs Commissioner. At 9:35 the sirens went off to evacuate. In all my years in government, I had never evacuated a federal building for an actual emergency. We were told there was a commercial plane that was going to crash into the White House, which is right next to the Treasury. I got out on 15th Street, and I happened to catch the eye of the acting secretary of treasury, who waved me into his car. He took me over to the Secret Service Command Center, where I met with the core leadership of U.S. Customs. The first question put to me was, should we go to Alert Level One at our borders, the highest level of security short of shutting down all our entry points? I had no idea what that meant as I had not been briefed on security alert levels yet. After I found out what it entailed, I went ahead and authorized it and from that moment on, I was running U.S. Customs. The next week I was confirmed and appointed by the President.


Q: What was the biggest revelation from that day?
A:
There were two. The priority mission of the U.S. Customs became preventing terrorists from entering the U.S. The second came the following day. As a result from going to level one security, we had virtually shut down our borders to trade. Average wait times for vehicles crossing the Canadian border went from 10 minutes on Sept. 10, 2001, to more than 12 hours. We didn't have enough technology or people to handle that level of scrutiny. The President gave me a figurative thump in the chest and said: "You've got to secure our borders against a terrorist threat, Bonner. But you have to do it without shutting down the U.S. economy."


Q: How do you do that?
A:
You can't ever completely secure a border without shutting it down. There are no ironclad guarantees. But you can make it far more difficult for terrorists like Al Qaeda, and their operatives, to get weapons into the U.S, without unduly impeding the flow of legitimate trade and travel. These twin goals, as I called them, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the initiatives we launched, which by the way were all conceived and hatched within months of 9/11, not only made the borders more secure, they also made the flow of more trade more efficient than it had been.


Q: You're talking about things like the Container Security Initiative and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, which are geared toward what you've called a "smart border."
A:
Not only a smart border, which can discriminate between high-risk cargo and individuals coming in, and legitimate travel and goods, but also an extended border that wouldn't force us to do all of our security at the Port of L.A./Long Beach, and further slow the flow of trade. With the container security initiative, we put together a targeting system that would inspect the high-risk containers before they left foreign ports like Singapore, Hong Kong, Rotterdam, Yokohama, etc.


Q: How vital are the L.A. ports to the nation's economy?
A:
Even if you measured L.A. and Long Beach as separate ports which they're not, they're really one economic entity they'd still be ranked as the top two container ports in the nation. When the West Coast ports had a labor issue in 2002, conservative estimates were that it cost the U.S. economy $1 billion per day.


Q: How are those ports doing today?
A:
That's the real business issue here. The Ports of L.A./Long Beach are perilously close to reaching their maximum throughput. We need to improve the infrastructure, and not just at the ports, but beyond, when we take cargo out by truck or rail. If we don't pay attention to this, we'll start seeing large companies, like Hutchinson Port Holdings, developing deepwater ports in Mexico to ship goods from Asia to the U.S. through Mexico, which creates even more security issues for us at our borders and pulls business away from Southern California.


Q: What about our border with Mexico? Many would say the illegal work force coming in sustains the California economy.
A:
There were 1 million apprehensions by Border Patrol agents last year, virtually all at the Mexican border. Within that flood of illegal migrants, 88 percent were from Mexico and 12 percent were other nationalities, which include high-risk countries, so there is a security issue there. Obviously the U.S. economy benefits from immigrant labor, and you have to recognize that fact, given how close we are to Mexico. But we must reduce the flood of illegal immigration. You can walk two blocks from where we're sitting and buy a fraudulent green card or Social Security card for $50, and employers think they're home free because the system permits massive fraud and no one is complying. If we have meaningful employer sanctions, then the vast majority of companies will comply to avoid penalties.


Q: What are you doing at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher?
A:
Representing companies in matters of government prosecutions, compliance, and internal investigations. I'm one of the few federal judges in the nation who returned to the practice of law. I also provide strategic advice to companies regarding homeland security issues, which goes beyond the law into policy, where I want to stay active. Since I'm really a trial lawyer at core, I will also lead civil litigations. Most lawyers specialize in one area. I've never liked being pigeonholed.


Q: Managing an agency like DEA or CBP must have created an awful lot of stress what did you do to unwind?
A:
My daughter got me running for health reasons. I used to do two or three miles every other day when I was commissioner, which was a great stress reliever. Then again, I've been running for 10 years and my knees aren't even close to giving out like most hardcore runners I know (laughs).


* Robert Bonner
Title: Partner
Firm: Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP
Born: Jan. 29, 1942; Wichita, Kan.
Education: B.A., University of Maryland; Georgetown Law School
Career Turning Point: Being a law clerk in federal court
Most Admired People: Colin Powell, Antonin Scalia
Hobbies: Running, tennis, reading
Personal: Lives in Pasadena with wife, Kimi. Daughter Justine is a schoolteacher in San Francisco

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