So, there he was.
That was Ismail “Izzy” Ramsey at Willie Brown’s side as Hizzoner made a presentation at a long conference table in a private room stocked with a “bunch of high-rollers,” in the recollection of an attendee.
It was a “pitch for dough” to foot Ramsey’s legal bill to represent Mohammed Nuru. A number was tossed out that even an onlooker accustomed to big numbers described to Mission Local as “breathtaking.”
Ramsey, a top-flight white-collar criminal defense attorney, was tapped by President Joe Biden last month to serve as the next United States Attorney for the Northern District of California. The scenario of the lawyer who, earlier this year, defended the convicted felon located in the middle of every Venn Diagram of city bad actors now assuming the role of lead federal prosecutor is downright theatrical. It’s like something out of “The Wire.” Add some dragons and robes and old-timey accents, and it’s a “Game of Thrones” plot twist.
In recounting this scenario to veteran attorneys and politicos, some of them — even those who felt Ramsey to be an excellent choice — burst out in laughter at the ridiculousness of it all.
Described in the abstract, it sure does feel ridiculous, another laugh-so-we-don’t-cry moment in San Francisco, the city that both decries and abides corruption.
In the concrete, however, it ignores and abnegates the entirety of Ramsey’s career. And that’s quite a career to ignore.
So, there he was: Two decades and change ago, that was Ramsey arguing before a federal Grand Jury and doing his damndest to ensnare Willie Brown and his apparatchiks. “Everyone was in front of him at one point,” recalls a political player who saw Ramsey in action back when Ramsey was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. “It was a giant fishing expedition.”
Ramsey was described as “really good. He really knew his shit. He was asking good questions. … he was an aggressive, smart prosecutor.”
Of course that fishing expedition wasn’t successful: It never comes down on Willie Brown. “But that wasn’t because Izzy wasn’t trying.”
Now, that was a long time ago. But it does complicate the notion that Ramsey is some human roadblock or cooling rod placed in this position to serve unseen power players and stave off further embarrassing corruption prosecutions against this city’s elite. This claim was abhorrent to those who know Ramsey well.
“I think San Francisco has nothing to worry about,” said retired U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, a towering figure in the Bay Area legal community. Henderson went to school with Ramsey’s father, Henry, and has known Ismail Ramsey “from the day of his birth.”
Henderson was unfazed by Ramsey’s work representing Nuru. Representing people, after all, is what defense attorneys do.
“I did it myself before I took the bench,” summed up the retired judge. “If you get somebody who did something awful, we take an oath that we represent those people, too, and give them the best defense. We won’t lie for them or say they didn’t do it, but we represent them and give them the best we can offer them. That’s what he did.”
Another notable Bay Area legal figure who’s bullish on Ramsey is the man he’s replacing.
“Izzy is going to come in and start throwing punches for the U.S. now. That’ll be his job,” said Dave Anderson, the former U.S. Attorney whose office oversaw the corruption cases against Nuru and others.
“I have no doubt about that,” continued Anderson, now in private practice at Sidley Austin LLP. “He’s a high-character guy.”
When we reached out to Ramsey to ask about the U.S. Attorney’s job, he emailed back not two minutes later: “I’m honored to have been nominated, and look forward to the Senate confirmation process.”
Points for punctuality — and brevity. The Democrats’ better-than-expected November means that, barring unforeseen lunacy, Ramsey will clear the confirmation. And then what? To borrow Hamlet’s line, that is the question.
Predicting the future is hard. And that’s because life isn’t a binary; multiple truths can blend and interact.
“Here are four things that could be true. The question is, will all of them be true?” posited a longtime city politico. “One, Ramsey is a great lawyer. Two, he’s politically connected. Three, yes, he has a conflict-of-interest problem that’ll probably come up at some point. And, four, yes, this could actually make him a better crime-fighter. He understands the other side of the table.”
Ramsey grew up in the Bay Area and has known the architects of San Francisco’s power structure since he was a child. He was willing to set his sights on them in the past and, if he chooses to do so again, he doesn’t need a Virgil to guide him through this city’s political inferno.
“Who better understands these people’s schemes?” asked a political observer who saw Ramsey in action as a federal prosecutor in the 1990s. “If he’s going to go after these people, he knows where the bodies are buried.”
Regardless of what Ramsey does or does not do, his local pedigree was marked as huge plus by his backers.
“It’s not like when you bring in an outsider from ‘Big Law’” to serve as U.S. Attorney, notes Ethan Balogh, a fellow white-collar defense attorney, friend and former colleague of Ramsey’s.
Rather, Ramsey has “been in the trenches for the last 20 years. More than that: He knows the judges, he knows the clerks, he knows the marshals, he knows all the lawyers on both sides of it. They were in the game.”
Henderson concurs. “He knows the lay of the land, knows everybody worth knowing in the criminal justice system here. That has to be an advantage. I was chief judge when Robert Mueller came along” — yes, that Robert Mueller, who was U.S. Attorney here from 1998 to 2001.
“Mueller was a brilliant and dedicated man,” Henderson continued. “I admire him a great deal. But he had a lot to learn. He came around and asked questions about how things were. Izzy won’t have to do that. He knows where to go.”
The conflict of interest rules for federal lawyers are rather strict. If Ramsey attains the post of U.S. Attorney, he could find himself being walled off from an unknown number of corruption cases, due to his work for Nuru.
This might come up quite a bit; Nuru was a man who operated in the very center of San Francisco’s system rather than on its periphery (like, say, Leland Yee). Nuru was tied in with Harlan Kelly; he was tied in with Walter Wong; his entanglements with Mayor London Breed, in part, led to an embarrassing $23,000 ethics fine.
So, Ramsey could recuse himself in both current and future cases (the Kelly case, among others, is ongoing). But that goes both ways; Ramsey is not permitted to use any information he gleaned as Nuru’s attorney to mount a case for the United States, either.
There’s an ethics office in Washington, D.C., that takes these things very seriously. The U.S. Attorney’s Office won’t likely out-and-out say if a recusal is taking place, but there are ways to read the tea leaves. If, for example, the First Assistant U.S. Attorney is listed atop the masthead of a case document instead of the U.S. Attorney — that’s what’s up.
The Nuru situation is, again, theatrical. But recusals are hardly uncommon. Ramsey is one of the most high-profile white-collar criminal defense attorneys in the region, so it figures he’d be briefing some of the region’s most high-profile accused white-collar criminals.
“If you’re a skilled attorney, then people in trouble are going to go to you for help,” summed up Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney in the San Francisco public defender’s office. “If I popped up tomorrow repping Nuru or Willie Brown or anybody, after that, are you going to think differently of my ethics? Because, sometimes, it is an influence we raise these concerns. But oftentimes, look, it’s a professional job to do. It’s an honor to have somebody in a lot of trouble to pick you to navigate troubling situations.”
San Francisco itself is navigating a troubling situation. What comes next is not clear. But Ramsey’s longtime supporters, at least, say our potential next U.S. Attorney is not part of that problem — and may yet be its antidote.
“I was a strong advocate for this. I talked to people,” says attorney John Burris, a law student of Ramsey’s father at the University of California, Berkeley. “You should have no trepidation at all. Izzy is a balanced man and a good advocate.”
Adds Henderson: “I’m not extravagant in my praise of people, usually. But he’s going to be a superb, principled, firm, persistent U.S. Attorney. When he leaves that office, whenever it might be, he is going to have a proud record behind him. I have no doubt.”