Interview: Greg Kehoe

From delivering the Brooklyn Eagle as a kid to prosecuting Saddam Hussein for the U.S. Justice Department.

By Palmer Hasty

World renowned Attorney Greg Kehoe was born on the Lower West Side of Manhattan in Washington Heights. When he was six years old his family moved to Rockaway Beach on the edge of Brooklyn. As he explained in a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle: “You know, Rockaway is right next to Brooklyn and Coney Island, so, most of my memories, my connection to humanity if you will, was through Brooklyn.” Kehoe has been a law partner with the international law firm Greenberg Traurig since 2006.

This interview with the Eagle was conducted in Tampa at his Greenberg Traurig office. For a tough prosecuting attorney Kehoe has had a dream career.  He worked as a young law clerk in federal court at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn prior to joining the Justice Department in 1982. In the early 90s he worked on investigations for the House Counsel on Foreign Affairs in Washington, then returned to the Justice Department to work overseas on the War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia until almost 2000.

When he returned to the states he had a private practice for four years until he was tapped in 2004 by President George W. Bush to work for the Department of Defense in Iraq. In 2005 he was back in the states and became a partner at Greenberg Traurig.

In 2008 he returned to The Hague in the Netherlands to work on another War Crimes Tribunal related to the Croatian War of Independence. He’s prosecuted high profile corporate fraud and racketeering cases. In the late 1990s he helped prosecute Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic for war crimes during the International Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In 2008 he returned to the Netherlands to represent former Croatian Lieutenant-General Ante Gotovina, who was accused of international war crimes during the Croatian War of Independence and sentenced to prison. In the Appeals case Kehoe won Gotovina’s acquittal. In 2004, via Presidential Appointment, he worked for the Department of Defense as Head of the Regime Crimes Liaison group advising the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which was set up to prosecute former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and other members of Hussein’s regime.

BE: How does one get a “Presidential Appointment”?

GK: “It’s not exactly a direct path.” He paused for a moment, laughed as he often does in conversations, and said, “It’s a funny story but its true; here’s what really happened.”

Kehoe prosecuting a war crimes case at the Hague in the Netherlands.

GK: “I do this skiing trip every year, you know, with some older guys like myself. Early one morning the phone suddenly rings in the condo we had rented in Vale, Colorado. One of my ski buddies answers the phone and says: ‘Yea’…then turns from the phone and yells, ‘It’s the Attorney General of the United States.’
I take the receiver and a voice says: ‘Can you speak to General Ashcroft?’
I’m thinking, this is the Attorney General, but before I could even say yes this voice came on the line.
(It was evident Kehoe enjoyed imitating Ashcroft’s voice.)
‘Greg? …What are you doing?’
“I’m skiing!”
As if that was immaterial Ashcroft continued.
“I want to ask you if you’re interested in talking about a job over in Baghdad.”
“Yes General, of course I’m interested in the job”
“Can you come up this week?”
“I’m skiing General!…In Vale!”
“Well, can you come up next week?”
“Yes, I’ll come up next week.”
After he hung up Kehoe said he sat there for a moment wondering;   “How did they find me? I wasn’t even on the lease for the condo… but they found me.”

That phone conversation would eventually lead Kehoe to the deserts of Iraq investigating mass grave sites, as well as face to face encounters in a courtroom with the captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

BE: What was your first job?

GK: “I was 8 years old, I worked as a newspaper delivery boy, including delivering the Brooklyn Eagle when the paper was temporarily revived as a daily paper in 1962-63. That was the year the Typographical Union had walked out on eight New York newspapers.”

“Here’s what happened. The Eagle was the newspaper in Brooklyn by the time it first went out of business in 1955. Some other kids and I were delivering newspapers when the printer’s strike hit New York in 62.   Back then you delivered newspapers on your bicycle, and I can tell you categorically, for the immigrant population in my area, the newspaper strike was a big crisis. I lived in a house where we suddenly went from reading seven newspapers a day, to none. That’s when the Eagle came back.”

BE: During the strike?

GK: “Yes, they came to us and said do you guys want to deliver the Eagle? We said sure. And the way we did it, we just went around to people we’d already been delivering papers to, and asked them if they wanted to get the Eagle.”

BE: So, did they want the Eagle?

GK: “Everybody, and I mean everybody, wanted the Eagle! That was when the Eagle’s circulation grew from 50,000 to 154,000.”

greg kehoe
Brooklyn native and Tampa Attorney Kehoe was a serious Dodger fan in his youth.
He keeps an original 1955 World Championship poster on his office wall.

BE: What area of Brooklyn did you grow up in?

GK: “Well, a lot of my growing up was done in Rockaway, and to me, its just as well Brooklyn.”

BE: Was there anything specific in your background that influenced you to become a lawyer?

GK: “Law was just an intriguing thing. My my father was a policemen, and my mother was a law secretary on Court Street at Borough Hall. Perhaps enforcing the law comes from my Irish background.”

“I mean this in a very positive way when I describe Rockaway as a policeman-fireman-city worker ghetto. It was loyalty to the people around you and doing the right thing.  And it didn’t make any difference whether you were Catholic, Jew, or Protestant, you took care of the people in the neighborhood.”

BE: Brooklyn is well known for it’s numerous individual neighborhood cultures living together under a larger identity.

GK: “We had dozens of kids on our block, I mean, those were the baby boomer days. We played stick ball in the streets daily, and later we could always get enough kids up for a game of baseball.”  

“Since we’re talking about neighborhoods and Brooklyn, I’ll give you an example: You would walk down the street and the little old ladies on the lawn chairs in the front yards, they would say, ‘Can I help you…who are you looking for?’ Well, I’m looking for whoever, and she would say, pointing, they live four houses down there. But if you didn’t belong, what she was telling you was we don’t know you and you don’t belong here, so you definitely need a reason to be here. That was a characteristic of the whole geographic area, Brooklyn, Rockaway, it was just the way the neighborhood people looked out for each other.”

attended St. Francis De Sales grammar school before going to high school at St John’s Prep in Bedford Stuyvesant. He went to Boston College for his undergraduate degree in English and Political Science. Then he earned a law degree from St. John’s School of Law in Jamaica, Queens. In 2005 he received an Honorary Doctorate of Legal Letters from St. Johns School of Law.

BE: What was it like prosecuting a figure like Saddam Hussein?

GK: “I was the Liaison for the Iraqi Tribunal that prosecuted the Iraqi dictator. I set up a courtroom in Camp Victory not far from the Iraqi airport. We brought an Iraqi judge in for the initial court appearances. Saddam was one of several regime prisoners brought in. When he stood directly in front of me and the guards had removed his shackles, I said, ‘You’ve got to go through that door right there.’ Later, in a conversation with Saddam he told me he thought I was sending him into a room to be shot.”

“It was fascinating for sure. While I was there in the courtroom, with the Iraqi National Security Adviser and Deputy Prime Ministers, for the first time I realized the profound psychological and emotional damage Saddam had inflicted on that country. It was astounding. Here are these grown men well into their professional careers, shocked momentarily with fear, actually shuddering when they saw him just ten feet away.”

Kehoe inspecting a mass grave site in Iraq.

BE: Was there more to being the Liaison for the prosecution than the court room scenario?

GK: “Absolutely. My job included investigating the existence of the mass graves where the Saddam regime had thousands of women and children executed and buried. You go and see 300 plus bodies of women and children (babies) who had taken .22 caliber rounds to the back of the head. In the next trench you saw all the men who were gathered together and shot with AK-47s. It was devastating to witness. And we’d take chopper rides along the Arabian Peninsula and see grave sites already prepared for future executions. Elements of my case were based not only on what Saddam had done, but what he had been planning to do.”

BE: Along with what I sense in you as a native Irish pride, do you feel their are neighborhood-centric characteristics you carried with you from Brooklyn?

GK: “Yes, I believe so. I associated those characteristics with the heroism displayed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 in 2001. I used to talk to my daughter a lot about that foundation of taking care of one another. For example, those guys in my neighborhood and other areas of Brooklyn: While everyone was frantically trying to get out of the burning buildings that morning, those guys were heroically going in to save people. I remember there were 61 deaths in the Rockaway area as a result of what happened that morning. Cops and firemen growing up with the idea of sacrificing themselves for the greater good if necessary.”

He paused for a long moment; “It’s not really chivalry I’m talking about, its more than that, its something you grow up with.”

Photos Credits:
Greg Kehoe in Tampa Law Office. Photo: Palmer Hasty
Greg Kehoe during War Crimes Trial in the Netherlands. Photo Courtesy of Sense-Agency.
Greg Kehoe with Brooklyn Poster. Photo: Palmer Hasty
Greg Kehoe at Iraqi mass grave site (2004). Photo Courtesy of Thanassi Cambanis.