Turning Over the Soil
Whether in law, cattle or politics, Todd Graves knows if you strategize too long, you’ll never get the hole dug
Published in 2017 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By RJ Smith on November 14, 2017
As a lawyer, Todd Graves tries to think like a farmer.
Say you’re putting in a fencepost. Get a bunch of folks with advanced degrees together, and they might have diverse, elaborate ideas on the best way to dig the hole. Studies might be commissioned, experts consulted.
“Sometimes people strategize so much they lose sight of the need to just begin,” Graves says. “I can’t predict everything in a lawsuit, but at some point, you just have to put in a spade and turn the soil over.” It’s a lesson he learned as a kid, when his father would ask him to do some unpleasant task on the farm. Graves would strategize how to do it best, and his father’s mantra was always, “Just get it started, or you’ll never get it done.”
The Graves’ family cattle farm lies outside of Smithville, in the northwest corner of the state. The folks up there, says Brad Lager, a longtime friend of Graves and former state senator, have a strong sense of who they are.
“They get up early and go to bed late, and they work hard all day because they understand if they do, they are going to get paid a fair wage,” Lager says. “And when there’s a problem, it’s roll-up-your-sleeves and let’s get to work fixing it.”
On this particular afternoon, Graves is doing just that. He’s dressed in jeans, a farm-friendly button-up and leather work boots. Sitting in the loft of his barn, he looks out over his beloved herd of cattle.
Just a few years ago, the family tore down the original, dilapidated barn. Graves took off the siding, planed down the boards and made the hardwood floor his boots clomp across. It’s not unlike him to be working at the farm on a weekday instead of at Graves Garrett in downtown Kansas City. The countryside, he says, is part of who he is. He does some ranching every day. It’s in his blood—his great-great-great grandparents bought the land not far from the Platte River, back in 1867, and the Peterson (Graves’ middle name) family has been there ever since.
The Graves have continuity in common. They also had politics in common—until Graves. “The family was essentially FDR Democrats until my generation came along,” says Graves, who last year was tapped to lead the Missouri Republican Party.
Helming a firm with a national political profile, being the face of the state’s Republican Party and raising 200 head of cows—Graves counts each as a critical part of his sense of self, yet the cattle often get the upper hand. “Sometimes I feel like this whole lawyer thing is just a temporary diversion from livestock,” he says.
Graves, 51, went to the University of Missouri with the intention of studying agricultural economics. Politics was an early interest, too, which led him to work on Kit Bond’s 1986 Missouri Senate campaign. But upon returning to school for his junior year in January 1987, everything changed—he was diagnosed with a stage two lymphoma near his groin, a kind of cancer so rare he had a difficult time finding treatment. He was 21. “The prognosis was extremely dire,” he says.
Initially, he received treatment at the local MU hospital, but was eventually transported to Houston for full diagnosis and surgery. He stayed for several months. “I had a 10-hour surgery, and began chemotherapy right away,” he says.
Graves resumed classes in late spring, finished the year, and began an internship with newly elected Sen. Bond in DC that summer, managing to graduate on time in the spring of 1988.
It was not easy.
“From February 1987 through the end of the year, every three weeks, my doctors gave me a treatment that made me violently sick every 20 minutes for 26 hours—like clockwork,” he says. “You’d feel OK for about five minutes out of the 20, and then it would start again—feeling progressively worse until getting violently ill.” He remains gracious to the professors who worked with him around his illness.
“All my hair fell out,” he says. “I spent so much time that year thinking that that was my last year. … It probably made me a lot more focused and driven.”
Considering what he’d gone through, Graves wasn’t going to think long about fencepost holes—he just started digging. He enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia and lost himself in classes. He got his J.D., and a master’s in public administration, in three years.
“[Law school] allowed me not to focus on health concerns,” he says, “although it did make me really intense at that age.”
Throughout law school, he traveled often to Houston for monitoring, but required no additional treatment. (While he’s never been given the proverbial “clean bill” of health, Graves doesn’t need monitoring as often as he used to. He notes that he’s the last one left alive from a group study of individuals with his condition.)
In 1991, the powerful Manhattan law firm Skadden Arps offered Graves a $95,000 job in New York; the Missouri Attorney General’s office put in its own bid for a gig in the opinions department: $26,000. Graves came home.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. “I think a lot of lawyers take the obvious path, and at that time that’s what Skadden Arps was—Barbarians at the Gate was just written, and it was the hottest firm in the country. [But] in a more modest surrounding, I started doing meaningful work immediately, and had a lot of responsibility. … It gave me the opportunity to meet people, which led to opportunities to serve as U.S. attorney and other positions.”
Graves was simultaneously nursing his love of politics and his appetite for the law.
In 1988, he worked for John Danforth’s U.S. Senate re-election campaign, then spearheaded Republican David Steelman’s failed run for the state attorney general slot four years later. By then he was working at Kansas City’s Bryan Cave, until politics again interrupted—Graves quit to run for public office, winning the job of Platte County prosecutor.
The newly elected Graves was the youngest full-time prosecuting attorney in the state, and by his own admission, he had more political experience than courtroom experience. In fact, on his first day in office, he’d never actually practiced criminal law before. But he did own the complete Missouri Practice Series, so he plowed through it, cover to cover. “That’s how I got started,” he says. “I would have been horrified to tell anyone at the time, but it’s true.”
He worked hard building his cases; he continued making political contacts as well, and ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2000. Three months later, Sen. Bond recommended to President George W. Bush that Graves be selected as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.
Graves says the next five years were complicated. On the one hand, he handled numerous major cases, including the prosecution of Lisa Montgomery, one of his highest-profile cases. Montgomery, a Kansas woman, had recently miscarried, and she began communicating online with an eight-months pregnant Missouri woman. After setting up a meeting, ostensibly to buy a dog, Montgomery strangled the pregnant woman and cut the fetus out of her body as she lay in a pool of blood.
“That case has a lot of meaning for me,” Graves says. He directed the prosecution, and though ultimately he did not try Montgomery himself, “I had been trying death penalty cases for years, and this was like a culmination. I had a quiet confidence that I could make a difference in that case.” Montgomery was sent to death row, where she remains today.
He enjoyed being U.S. attorney. “All you had to do was wake up in the morning, and you knew you’d be working on something important that day,” Graves says.
“He did his job well, and in a way that was pretty widely acknowledged as nonpartisan and nonpolitical,” says Robert Thompson, a lawyer with Bryan Cave in Kansas City whom Graves worked with in the ’90s. “I think there were people who thought, given his political background, that he would continue to be political. His fate shows how straight-up he played it.”
That fate? Graves was collateral damage in a dispute between the staffs of Sen. Bond and another political Graves—Graves’ brother, Missouri Congressman Sam Graves. It was reported that Bond’s office now pressured the Bush administration to remove him.
It was a shock to the system. Just months before, the Justice Department had offered Graves a White House interview for an 8th Circuit Court position. And then Graves got “the phone call,” which felt like “a kick in the gut,” he says.
“I felt that I did an exemplary job, and I didn’t know at the time what was going on,” he says with a shrug. “I was making plans to leave within a few months anyway. … Looking back, it was a political spat, nothing more noble. Like when brothers get into a fight, it was about something but nobody really knows what. It was just a political dispute between the staffs, over something meaningless, I’m sure. … That’s politics.”
Those plans to leave involved talking to several lawyers about forming a firm down the road. When he lost his job, Graves brought an assistant U.S. attorney and former FBI agent named Nathan Garrett into the fold. Graves Garrett opened in 2006. The firm specializes in commercial and white collar litigation, as well as political work for conservative causes.
Graves is known to fly his own plane to gain a quick presence when a national political issue flares up that he wants in on—his version of barnstorming.
A few years ago, a longtime client in Wisconsin called, distraught, after having just been served with a subpoena and search warrant. The next morning, Graves and a partner flew up to Spring Green to meet with the client to put a defense together. That discussion grew into a landmark case: Graves led the defense for conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth, as well as Republican Eric O’Keefe, when they sued the state to end a long-running investigation involving Gov. Scott Walker. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the investigation was unconstitutional.
“We feel like ours is the Forrest Gump practice,” he says. “Always near something big when it happens.” Graves says the firm’s work on national campaign finance and free speech litigation issues goes for a third or less than what a big DC firm would bill.
Graves is proud to have filed the first-ever lawsuit against the IRS in support of Tea Party groups that said they were unfairly singled out for scrutiny. “We consider ourselves lunch pail lawyers,” Graves explains. “We don’t try to be TV lawyers, we try to put a brick in the wall every day and move these cases forward. In ‘small-P’ political law, there are way more strategizers and way fewer executors. We try to be the executors.”
Last year, when new Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens picked Graves to head the state Republican party, he called Graves “a conservative fighter, a proven leader in business and his community, and a native Missourian.”
Graves, for his part, tries to bring together disparate parts of the party, whose disagreements he likens to church squabbles. “They are personality conflicts masquerading as theological differences,” he says.
“Todd has been involved in state politics long enough to understand what has and what hasn’t worked,” says Lager. “He’s been a very beneficial adviser.”
“In a word, he has acumen,” adds Alex Bachelor, general counsel for the Dairy Farmers of America, a Kansas City-based dairy marketing cooperative. Graves has handled several pieces of litigation and complex matters for DFA, and has largely served as a key adviser, offering input on campaign and election laws as well as other regulatory matters. “Professional acumen and interpersonal acumen,” says Bachelor. “He gives you a high sense of confidence that you are dealing with somebody that understands the issues you are facing, understands what needs to be done, and how it needs to be done.”
That’s one cattleman to another.
Graves runs a steak competition in Missouri, and his farm provides beef to Anton’s Tap Room, a popular Kansas City butcher shop and restaurant. So how does he view the head of his party, the man in the White House, who orders his steak well-done and doused in ketchup?
“I’m not very fond of that,” says Graves. “I like mine rare.”
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