Ivan K. Fong
Ivan K. Fong
“The timing was right,” Ivan K. Fong explains about his decision to serve as general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “It’s an exciting moment in history—to be in Washington as part of a new administration. It’s an opportunity that I found very difficult to refuse.”
Fong joins a growing number of Asian Pacific American attorneys to be appointed to prominent positions in government. “I don’t feel like a pioneer, or necessarily even part of an Asian American first wave,” he notes, “but it’s true that I see more and more Asian Americans being appointed to very senior levels in the executive branch, including three Asian American cabinet secretaries [Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke]. While I don’t feel so remarkable, I’m definitely part of a trend that I’d like to see continue.”
Before his recent appointment as general counsel for DHS, Fong was chief legal officer and secretary for Cardinal Health, an $87 billion global manufacturer and distributor of medical and surgical supplies and technologies based in Dublin, Ohio. In addition to advising the CEO and the company’s senior leadership on all legal matters, Fong oversaw government relations, worked closely on compliance, and supported t he board of directors on corporate-governance matters.
Although Fong shares that “I wasn’t actively seeking an appointment in the Obama administration,” when he spoke with Eric Holder, then the nominee for United States Attorney General, about possible job opportunities with the Department of Justice (DOJ) last winter, Fong was not averse to the prospect. Not only had Fong volunteered for the Obama campaign and contributed financially, but he had also worked with Holder at the DOJ in the late 1990s and was open to rekindling that professional relationship.
“Because [Holder] needed someone to start right away, and because I’d made a commitment to Cardinal Health to stay with the company through a large transaction, we knew my going to the DOJ immediately wasn’t a viable option,” recalls Fong. “Shortly thereafter, however, I received a call from then DHS Secretary nominee Janet Napolitano’s office about the general counsel position. Only when I thought seriously about DHS and the breadth of issues it covers— immigration, border security, cyber security, counter-terrorism, FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Agency, among others—did I truly appreciate just how interesting and significant being general counsel of such a large and complex department would be. With more than 1,700 lawyers and its breadth of mission, DHS offers me a heretofore unparalleled challenging opportunity to build and test my leadership capabilities.”
“My first meeting with Secretary Napolitano went well,” he continues. “We share an interest in being pragmatic, looking for effective ways to enforce standing laws, and bringing a fresh look at policy issues. She liked my science background. Securing borders and cyberspace; enforcing immigration laws; and preparing for, responding to, and recovering from natural disasters are all goals that involve new technology.”
Because the general counsel position is a presidential appointment that is subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, Fong was required to undergo the Senate confirmation process in April and May. “It was my first experience through the process,” shares Fong. “Fortunately, the DHS Office of Legislative Affairs was very helpful in preparing me and getting me through the process relatively painlessly.”
Fong came to his new position with an informal game plan: “It’s not unlike starting at a corporation. My goal is first to begin to establish a strong relationship with my new boss. As GC, your most important relationship is with the CEO—or, in my case, Secretary Napolitano. In addition, I want to become acquainted with the entire department and the relevant interagency processes. We have a lot of interaction with the DOJ, among many other agencies. The recent H1N1 flu preparedness and response issues, for example, were a joint effort by DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Naturally, the GC role does not end there; he also has a plan for leading the DHS law department, beginning with “one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, to get a sense of their background and experience, as well as group meetings with the lawyers in DHS headquarters and each of the DHS components. I want to learn the issues they are facing, what changes they’d like made, what they’d like to see me do, and what they’re afraid I might do.”
The son of Chinese immigrants, Fong was born in New York City and grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. He spent a year and a half of junior high school at a boarding school in Hong Kong, where—at the prodding of his parents— he learned to read and write Chinese and to speak Cantonese (a different dialect than what he grew up speaking). After graduating from public high school in Maryland, Fong went on to earn both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“My plan was to stick with chemical engineering—get my Ph.D. and go into the industry, or perhaps teach and do research,” recounts Fong. “Then I took a class on the Supreme Court, and the professor took an interest in me. He encouraged me to consider law or public policy school. I also spent a summer in Washington, D.C., where I learned there was a need for people with technical backgrounds in these fields. In addition, throughout college I’d been very active in the school newspaper. Writing was something I enjoyed and a skill that I wanted to continue using.”
After graduating from Stanford Law School and spending a year at Oxford as a Fulbright scholar, Fong clerked for a federal appellate court judge and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Next, he made partner at Covington & Burling (the first Asian Pacific American attorney to do so), where he focused on litigation, white-collar criminal law, and intellectual property before going to work at the DOJ. He left government to join General Electric as its chief e-commerce and privacy counsel, and then moved to Cardinal Health in 2005.
A firm believer in serendipity, Fong contends he has never strategically angled for a specific job. But no matter how he reached each rung on his professional ladder, it never lessened the significance of the work at hand for Fong, and that is particularly true with his current position. “The first task of government is to protect the safety and security of its people,” Fong asserts. “There is no higher mission.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the July/August 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®