John Sandweg (Class of 2002) is a strategic thinker who can quickly hone in on the critical issue in an argument, a political enthusiast who has worked on campaigns and considered running for office himself, a history buff who has devoured the four volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and an unflappable center of calm in a crisis.
So, he may just be a good fit for acting General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a position he stepped into in October, after serving for more than three years as senior counsel to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
“Over the last four years, John has provided strategic counsel on both the operational and policy direction of DHS," Napolitano said. "He has helped me guide the Department’s efforts, including serving as a lead advisor for important programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, while also implementing policies that help the Department better focus our resources on public safety, border security, and the integrity of the immigration system.”
John said he enjoys challenges.
“And this is an incredible challenge,” he said.
It includes managing 1,800 lawyers, including the 120 in the headquarters, and being responsible for all legal decisions and policy for eight entities: the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
It’s a job that is pressure-packed, requires countless, intense hours, and is highly scrutinized.
John said it involves crisis management, policy development, responding to the White House, and to the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, lawfully implementing policy and dealing with reporters, whose stories on immigration and border security regularly appear on the front pages of national newspapers.
He has briefed the president in the Oval Office, had meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, traveled on Air Force One and accompanied Napolitano to Congress.
And he sits at the center of the country’s introspective debate about who is a citizen, who should be invited to stay here and who should be sent away.
“The other day, the Secretary was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a senator was questioning her about failing to adequately enforce immigration laws, while immigration activists in the audience were shouting her down for being overly aggressive,” John said. “You could not come up with a more contradictory scenario.”
“This is the problem with all immigration issues. It’s hard for people to get to the truth. There’s a lot of heated rhetoric, but the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
Douglas Sylvester, Dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said John is a clear example of the impact one bright, committed individual can make in the world.
“We hope, as educators, to help shape our students into active, engaged, productive members of our complex society,” Doug said. “John is engaged with some of the most difficult issues of our time. We are extremely proud of his achievements, his current work, and the impact we know he will continue to have in the future.”
The road to Washington
The path to D.C. started in Armstrong Hall at Arizona State University, where John became friends with Noah Kroloff (Class of 2003), who would become one of Napolitano’s most trusted advisors.
“When she was appointed by President Obama, and we were thinking of the staffers we needed, one of the first names she thought of was John,” Noah said. “And it took the secretary one-tenth of a second to decide she wanted him in D.C.
“He has a legal mind unlike anyone I’ve ever been around, perhaps other than the secretary, herself,” Noah said. “He was clearly the kind of person she wanted alongside her.”
Genetic legal acumen
John’s confident decision making and nerves of steel may come from his father, William H. “Bill” Sandweg III, (Class of 1974), a former U.S. Air Force pilot, who was senior editor on the law review and graduated magna cum laude, all while starting a family. Bill went on to be a trial lawyer in personal injury and medical malpractice in Phoenix.
“John was always a quick study,” Bill said. “He quickly separated the wheat from the chaff, got to the heart of something, solved the problem and moved on to the next issue. That’s a valuable talent, particularly in Washington, D.C.
“He has a very healthy appreciation of his own abilities and enjoys testing them.”
Bill, whose father worked for the FBI, attended Georgetown University for his undergraduate studies and came to Arizona State University after serving a stint as a flight instructor at Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, which closed in 1993.
“We had outstanding professors handpicked by founding Dean Willard Pedrick,” Bill said. “Our class, one of the first, turned out some great lawyers and judges, really fine people. It was a wonderful experience, but very stressful, particularly for those of us who were coming back from the service and had our studies interrupted.”
Bill said that John was always a voracious reader, but was bored in high school, attending Brophy Preparatory Academy for one year, then opting to finish with his friends at Central High School. He went to Northern Arizona University for three years, and finished at ASU. While John was a good college student, he was an exceptional law school student.
“Law school played to his strengths,” Bill said. “It tapped his reading, intellectual curiosity and problem solving.”
John admits that he wasn’t the best undergraduate student, but said he loved law school.
“I enjoyed every minute,” he said. “I owe the College of Law a huge debt for accepting me, educating me in the core skills that enabled me to get a job at a great law firm, which ultimately got me to where I am now. I am an incredibly grateful lifelong Sun Devil.”
The law of locker adjacency
Isaac M. Gabriel (Class of 2002), now a partner at Quarles & Brady, met John in their first semester of law school and became a close friend and study partner. He and John both joined Quarles & Brady on graduation, worked on many cases together, and remain close friends.
“We were in some first-year classes together, and our meeting was kind of random,” Isaac said. “John’s locker in the basement was next to mine, and we decided to put together a study group with a few people.”
Isaac said the study group did well, and they both ended up in the top 10 percent of the class, not easy in law school where everyone’s intellectually gifted. Still, they took time for socialization and didn’t always have their noses in the books.
“John was always smart, but he could be a procrastinator,” Isaac said. “He knew he could get away with it, because he was smart about how he worked. A lot of people in law school take notes blindly, don’t really think about things and just regurgitate things on the tests.
“The people who distinguish themselves give in-depth thought to the cases. John had the ability to cull through a lot of information and rules, and spit them out in a very coherent, organized manner.”
John was a Pedrick Scholar, graduated cum laude, Order of the Coif, and was the Homeless Legal Assistance Project’s Outstanding Law Student.
The Kroloff connection
Noah and John met when Noah came to ASU for law school in 2000. John was a few years younger but a year ahead in classes, and helped lead Noah through study sessions.
Noah had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., and had spent two years with Teach for America in the Bronx, where his political interest was born reading news reports of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign during the hours-long commute from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the South Bronx. He eventually worked as an aide to New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver before deciding on law school.
Just weeks into his first year at ASU, Noah had dinner at his friend and classmate John Smith’s house. John’s father, Gerald Smith, had worked at Lewis & Roca with Napolitano, then Arizona Attorney General, who was also a guest for dinner. Noah hit it off with the future governor and began working for Dennis Burke, her chief deputy at the time, who also has been an adjunct professor at the College of Law, and for a time worked with The Diane Halle Center for Family Justice.
“Trish White was dean of the law school then, and she thought outside the box,” Noah said. “The faculty and administration were flexible and supportive in helping me finish law school while encouraging me to pursue what I wanted to do. They valued creating a diverse pool of graduates. I’m incredibly indebted. My friends and colleagues often marvel at the support I received.”
Noah worked on Napolitano’s 2002 campaign for governor, and when she won, became her chief policy assistant. He finished his law degree in 2004, and in 2006, ran Napolitano’s re-election campaign, which garnered more than 60 percent of the vote. He then became her deputy chief of staff, and came to D.C. with Napolitano as chief of staff when she was appointed to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Called to the courtroom
In the meantime, John had established himself as a trial lawyer, like his father.
It seems the Sandwegs enjoy the art of argument and representation.
Bill began his law career as a trial lawyer with personal injury cases, then moved into medical malpractice, first in defense, and later working with plaintiffs.
“It’s rejuvenating,” Bill said. “There’s no chance to get bored. The depositions are with my experts or the defense’s experts. The reading is fascinating, and I learn a lot about medicine. And the attorneys working in medical malpractice are the best trial attorneys in the state. They’re formidable.”
After graduation, John also chose trial work, becoming an associate at Quarles & Brady.
“A trial lawyer has to handle stress, be a problem solver, identify issues and address them,” Bill said. “They have to be good with words, think on their feet, be nimble and agile. They have to be at the top of their form. John has all of these things, and they serve him well in D.C.”
Hector Diaz, a partner at Quarles & Brady, said he had been practicing for about three years when John joined the firm, and that they were assigned to governmental investigations in the firm’s commercial litigation group.
“He had instincts far beyond most second- or third-year associates,” Hector said. “In 13 years, I have not come across an attorney with the same ability to look at a problem, break it down and find the solution.
“He had a way of looking at a case, or problem, to very simply point out the critical issue while others were stuck in the weeds. I’d often say, ‘How did I miss this?’ He was incredible in the way he could frame the issue.”
Hector said John’s research and writing were exceptional, he worked to make his briefs succinct, and he had a calm, upbeat nature that made him a dear friend.
“There was never a time when I felt John couldn’t handle something, or that he would crack under the pressure, or lose his cool,” Hector said. “We were working on cases that we understood could result in dire consequences for the client if we didn’t do the job right.
“He set a good example for me. He was exceptional in the handling of cases and the way he interacted with people. He had the ability to communicate any kind of argument, and he was always optimistic.”
Hector said John was an incredibly strategic thinker, and he instituted weekly meetings to go over all the group’s cases, see where each case stood and determine what was needed to move forward. And he was always fully committed to the work.
“There was never a case when John was going to mail it in,” Hector said. “When he turns it on, it’s on.
“A lot of people are incredibly smart, gifted, but rely on that to simply not put in the time. And those gifts are wasted. John was never shy of doing the hard work, grinding it out on a case.”
Isaac, who worked on the Arizona State Law Journal and received the John S. Armstrong Award, one of the most prestigious honors given by the College of Law, now focuses on corporate bankruptcy and litigation related to bankruptcy. He works pro bono with The Arizona Project to help those wrongfully convicted and unfairly sentenced.
He said John’s skills, particularly writing, carried through to the work at the law firm.
“A lot of people don’t realize that normally you win cases before you walk into the courtroom,” Isaac said. “They’re won on the strength of the briefs and other writings that you file. Writing skill is critical.”
As is a calm demeanor.
“Being a trial lawyer trains you to be unflappable,” Isaac said. “Things go wrong with cases, with the trial, with clients.
“When you’re a lawyer, a good lawyer, with a big caseload, like John was, you have to learn to multitask and handle 20 new emergencies each day. It’s great training for D.C., where you can come in with your day planned, and there’s an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or pirates have abducted people off the coast of Somalia, or the president announces something about immigration and people are upset about deportations.”
Isaac said John was on track to become a partner, probably at the same time Isaac did, and that they talked a lot about him foregoing that opportunity to go to D.C.
“Ultimately, his view was that he could always decide to come back and work as a lawyer in Phoenix, but that he wouldn’t always have the opportunity to work with this amazing administration that swept into the White House. He went back and forth, but the draw was to be part of something bigger than an everyday lawyer.”
The pull of politics and adjacency redux
Noah and John made their way through law school, ended up buying houses next door to each other, and became fast friends.
“Probably, from 2003-2013, there wasn’t a day in my life that I wasn’t around him,” Noah said.
John was always drawn to politics, and once toyed with the idea of running for the state Legislature, Bill said. Noah encouraged John to run, but the campaign was abandoned when redistricting pitted him against a well-known incumbent.
John volunteered on several political projects, and in 2006 worked on Napolitano’s reelection campaign.
“John was living next door to Noah, who was going to D.C. with Napolitano, and asked John to be part of their team,” Bill said. “John had a very successful career at Quarles & Brady, but everyone recognized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I told him to go, enjoy. He’s young, not married. He was in the perfect position to take it on.”
John took the advice.
Bill’s mother, who recently passed away at 95 and spent many years in the Beltway while his father was working for the FBI, also had some advice for her grandson, John.
“She told him that most people in Washington will step on you in a heartbeat to move up,” Bill said. “She told him to be careful of what’s going on around him, and make sure that no one is taking advantage of him.”
Noah said there is a transition between the state political scene and a national security agency, where the sole focus is protecting the American people, and that John handled it flawlessly.
He said John is extraordinarily bright and easily masters even unfamiliar areas of law. Even though Noah had not worked in an office with John, he said John excelled and was quickly promoted to be acting general counsel.
Noah recently left after more than four years as Napolitano’s chief of staff. He said he wants to spend more time with his family, including wife Tracy (ASU, 2004) and two children. He also has started a security consulting firm with Dennis Burke, his former colleague in the Arizona attorney general and governor’s offices, Mark Sullivan, the former director of the U.S. Secret Service, and Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of both the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls.
“It has been a phenomenal honor,” Noah said of his work with Napolitano. “She’s a league apart, a natural with people, a gifted policy mind, in public service for the right reasons.”
The search for intelligent life
John lived, studied law, and worked as a lawyer in Arizona, but said it wasn’t until he got to D.C., that he really understood border issues.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric and not enough intelligent discussion about the investments in border security and the results achieved,” he said. He quickly quotes stats of increasing resources, increasing arrests and deportations, and increasing backlogs in immigration courts, adding that the numbers don’t capture the human element.
“Regardless of your political views, you need to look at the immigration system as a whole,” John said. “Most people, myself included, don’t really appreciate all the challenges.”
John said he is impressed with the talent of the DHS lawyers.
“The talent level is as high as any major law firm in the United States,” he said. “They have incredible resumes, and yet have chosen public service.
“They have a desire to try to solve these complex issues, to serve.”
Hector said that John was excited about working in such a great arena.
“He wanted to say he made a difference,” Hector said. “He was fascinated with the ability to say he worked on issues of policy that directly impact our day-to-day lives, especially immigration, which is so important in Arizona.”
Isaac said that John was the perfect man for the job, more perfect than his boss may have known.
“He was always up on current events, always had something insightful to add, so he was a logical choice for Napolitano. But I don’t know if she really knew how good he would be.”
Noah said he cannot predict John's future, calling it limitless.
“It may sound like everyone’s drinking the John Sandweg Kool-Aid, but his unique personality set doesn’t come along often,” Noah said. “He’s extraordinarily bright, a natural leader, intellectually curious, funny, charming and doesn’t ever take anything for granted.
“He’s the guy you can call in the middle of the night after a car accident who will be there in five minutes to make sure you’re OK, that you get home, to just help you out.
“He would be at the very top of my list if I were hiring an attorney or looking for someone to work with for the rest of my life.”