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A High-Flying Former Federal Prosecutor Brings His Environmental Practice to V&E

It was far from a typical airplane landing.

In 2008, when V&E partner Ron Tenpas was serving as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, the U.S. Navy was facing a number of high-profile lawsuits. Environmental groups had sued the Navy claiming its use of sonar by ships during training exercises was harmful to whales and other marine life.

To lead the DoJ’s legal team, including personally arguing the case before the Ninth Circuit, he needed to see an aircraft carrier and observe how sonar operates during the exercises. That meant hopping on a plane and enduring a “tailhook” landing, where the plane hooks onto a steel wire on the ship’s deck and comes to a complete stop in about 400 feet.

“This is what litigators do,” Tenpas said. “If you’re going to try your case, you need to see the place and know the facts.”

Tenpas brought that kind of thinking to the Justice Department where, over the course of 12 years, he rose from line prosecutor to serving as the federal government’s highest-ranking environmental lawyer, and later into private practice where he successfully defended companies and individuals in criminal and civil matters involving alleged violations of environmental and other laws.

Bolstering V&E’s environmental litigation bench

This past October Tenpas joined V&E’s environmental and natural resources team in Washington D.C. In luring Tenpas, V&E has added a nationally known name to its growing environmental litigation practice. His arrival is also part of a broader firm effort to add to its stable of former federal prosecutors and to burnish its position as one of the country’s leading white-collar criminal defense firms: Before becoming AAG during the Bush administration, Tenpas served as a United States Attorney.

His extensive and diverse experience having served at every level in the Justice Department — Assistant U.S. Attorney, U.S. Attorney running an entire prosecuting office, and then as AAG — provides clients with distinct advantages.

“It helps in making sound decisions about when to look to settle, and when to fight. And it helps in understanding who you need to call in the government when your issues need attention.”

“I’m a trial attorney who has seen dozens of cases to a jury verdict,” he added. “That’s a good number for someone in private practice and that experience is essential both in setting strategy and understanding the real world strengths and weaknesses a case presents.”

Defending IAV in a high-profile matter

Tenpas is already off to a running start. His client, Berlin-based engineering company IAV GmbH, a Volkswagen supplier, was recently facing criminal charges alleging that the company participated in Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal. In December, IAV reached a pact with the Justice Department, agreeing to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy to violate U.S. law, and to pay a $35 million fine.

The agreement noted that IAV played a minor role in the offense and that the company has already taken steps to enhance its compliance programs and internal controls.

“No client wants to have to go through such an event. But overall it was a great result for IAV, both in resolving the government’s concerns and providing a path to return IAV’s business to normal,” Tenpas said.

A would-be international deal lawyer switches gears

Smarts and pursuing opportunities have been consistent themes for Tenpas all the way back to his college days at Michigan State University where he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. He spent two years studying at Oxford and then headed to the University of Virginia Law School on a full academic scholarship where he was editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review.

A Navy airplane carrying Ron after it lands on aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.


He then held three clerkships — the second for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William H. Rehnquist. His third was for Judge Howard Holtzman of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, an international court set up in The Hague to resolve the remaining disputes between Iran and the U.S. connected to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979.

All in all, the clerkships marked a critical turning point. While as a student Tenpas thought he would become an international deal lawyer, he became increasingly interested in litigation and public service.

“The clerkships and learning more about what the government’s lawyer did made me realize that at some point as a lawyer I wanted to work in and around government,” Tenpas said.

The Justice Department journey

He would soon do just that. Tenpas followed his wife to Tampa, where she got a professor position at the University of South Florida. After three and a half years working as a litigator at a law firm, he joined the Justice Department and set off on 12-year path that would culminate in becoming the federal government’s top environmental lawyer.

After serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Middle District of Florida, and then in the District of Maryland, in 2003 Tenpas was named the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of Illinois, where he was the chief law enforcement officer for 38 counties. Two years later he took on another high-level position, this time in Washington D.C. where he was named Associate Deputy Attorney General.

Becoming Uncle Sam’s top environmental lawyer

Ron Tenpas delivering a speech at his AAG swearing-in ceremony


In 2007, Tenpas’ career pivoted once again when President Bush appointed the longtime prosecutor as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division after Tenpas secured unanimous Senate confirmation.

Tenpas ran a division that employed 700 people, including 400 lawyers. The job required both enforcing environmental laws and defending the government when the government was sued in connection with its own environmental duties, as was the case when the Navy was sued over its sonar use. Under Tenpas’ watch, the division secured what was at the time the largest criminal penalty under the Clean Air Act, as well as the largest ever civil injunctive relief in a separate Clean Air Act matter.

When Bush left office in 2009, Tenpas joined Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and over the course of nine and a half years, became one of the country’s preeminent environmental litigators.

“My sweet spots are helping people navigate moments when they think they have potentially violated the law, and also helping people respond when the government shows up at their door,” Tenpas said.

Picking up the phone when V&E called

Though he wasn’t looking to leave Morgan Lewis, Tenpas paid attention when V&E approached him. He had two friends associated with the firm who like Tenpas had served in the Justice Department and went on to have distinguished careers as environmental lawyers in private practice: Carol Dinkins, the former chair of V&E’s environmental law practice, and Kevin Gaynor, of counsel at the firm.

“I had tremendous respect and regard for both of them and by extension for V&E,” Tenpas said.

Tenpas sees his role at V&E as both serving the firm’s core base of energy clients, and helping the firm branch out. Clients outside of those industries that may not have turned to V&E in the past have all the more reason to do so now.

“I hope at this point I have my own profile in the world of environmental law and white collar defense that will allow me to attract work,” Tenpas said. “And as a team, we’ve got all the skills and capabilities a client could need. I’m eager to help showcase that and put it to work.”

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.