'What Better Client to Have?'
Dan Webber spent his first seven years in the U.S. attorney’s office
Published in 2020 Oklahoma Super Lawyers magazine
on October 29, 2020
Updated on November 6, 2020
On the morning of April 19, 1995, Dan Webber, then a 29-year-old law clerk, was talking on the phone at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City when a force suddenly broke through the wall, slamming him against his desk and sending shards of window glass into his skin. “I really thought it was a wrecking ball,” he says. “There was some construction actually going on a floor or two above us, so my instant thought was that something went crazy wrong.”
Within a half-hour, he learned that a bomb had exploded in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building one block away—and that his 19-month-old son Joseph had been pulled out of the rubble of the day care center there, unconscious. The toddler suffered a broken arm and jaw, blunt-force trauma, damaged eardrums and facial lacerations, and would need multiple surgeries.
Five months later, when Webber became assistant U.S. attorney for the criminal division of the Western District of Oklahoma, he immediately recused himself from the bombing cases against Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. But he would go on to prosecute and argue many others—from violent crime and narcotics trafficking to child pornography—over the next seven years.
In fact, it was the bombing that led to his hiring by former U.S. Attorney Pat Ryan, who needed to fill the openings created when four of his lawyers were assigned to that case. Luckily, Webber’s interest in prosecutorial work had been piqued by an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law and a stint as an aide for U.S. Sen. David Boren. “I’d worked my adult life in the legislative branch and saw how laws were made, and I thought the enforcement of those laws was important,” Webber says. “What better client to have than the United States?”
The job came with its challenges, though. At times, friction arose with state and local prosecutors; and collaborating with the FBI and other agencies could be complicated. Unlike the relationship with private clients, Webber says, “At the end of the day, you’re responsible for the disposition of the case.”
But Webber’s conversational courtroom style and his comfort level with juries—an outgrowth of speaking to people in small towns while campaigning for a U.S. congressional seat in 1994—allowed his authenticity to shine.
From his mentor, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Arlene (Joplin) Johnson, Webber learned that it’s not a win-at-all-costs system. And that, sometimes, you lose: As second chair in his first trial, which involved extortion and drug trafficking charges, one of the two defendants was acquitted. “I remember feeling like, ‘Am I really very good at this?’ But I can’t say the jury got it wrong either,” he admits.
The highest profile white-collar case he supervised as U.S. attorney ended with a former state health department deputy director and a Wewoka nursing-home owner each being found guilty of bribery, sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000. A subsequent bribery trial involving the same health department official, and a different nursing-home operator to whom he unlawfully steered business, also resulted in a conviction and prison time.
“It ripped the scab off a larger culture of corruption at the state health department that ranged from the deputy health commissioner being in bed with these nursing home conglomerates to political patronage jobs at the health department where [the employees] didn’t even have to show up to work to get paid,” Webber says.
Webber now works in private practice with Pat Ryan, the same lawyer who hired him as a prosecutor 25 years ago. “Having worked in the courthouse and in the U.S. attorney’s office, I was able to not only apply that in my civilian practice, but also teach young lawyers that you need to get to know the courtroom deputy, the people who make the machinery work,” he says. “If you understand their jobs, you can help make each other’s jobs easier.”
2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, from which Webber’s son made a full recovery. Each anniversary, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum hosts a remembrance ceremony, followed by a memorial marathon two weeks later. This year, due to COVID-19, the observance went virtual, as did the race, with participants running courses of their choosing in October.
“I am not such a runner,” says Webber. “[But] the route [traditionally] runs right by our law firm. We have a big ‘Ryan Whaley #WeRemember’ sign; we hang it up on the anniversary, and we hang it up on marathon day.”