When former U.S. Attorney Bill Killian was an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he purchased a thin, nearly pocket-sized copy of the Constitution of the United States for class.
Some 50 years later, the same copy of the supreme law of the land still lies within Killian’s reach, although its blue cover is now crinkled from use, and its yellowed pages are curled like the ears of an old Jack Russell Terrier.
“I kept it to have a quick reference to the Constitution in the days before computers and the internet,” Killian says. “It hasn’t changed much in all that time.”
Neither has Killian, whose life and career suggest he was born with the Constitution inscribed on his heart. From his days as a young Marion County boy to his ascent to the highest echelons of the law, Killian has held that the rules that govern society are “blind, fair and just, and show no favor.”
This view of the law has been the guiding principle in Killian’s life. “I was the kid who couldn’t keep quiet when they picked the ball teams, and there was more talent on one team than the other,” he says. “When they divided the candy bar, and one piece was bigger than the other, I had to say something.”
From Killian’s office on the sixth floor of the Tallan Building, the 69-year-old attorney is afforded a view of downtown Chattanooga that includes Warehouse Row, the Edney Innovation Center and TVA’s local headquarters. Beyond the crowded patch of inner-city, Lookout Mountain adds a touch of beauty to the scene.
Killian, who joined the law firm of Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan as an of-counsel attorney in May, barely has time to appreciate the vista. “I have work to do,” he says, looking over a sprawl of papers that covers his desk like a thick layer of autumn leaves.
Although Killian retired as U.S. attorney in 2015, he still takes cases that have many far-reaching tentacles. He’s working on several white-collar criminal investigations, one of which he calls “sizeable,” and he’s representing the victim in a complex federal embezzlement case. Then there’s the opioid litigation, the scale of which harkens back to his pressure cooker days as U.S. attorney.
“I’m representing 15 of the state’s district attorneys in opioid litigation against the manufacturers,” he explains, his eyes still gazing at the papers in front of him. “We’ve filed suits in Sullivan, Campbell and Cumberland counties against the opioid manufacturers for the damaged caused in those counties.”
During three decades as a sole practitioner in Jasper, Killian successfully defended clients in such grim matters as rape, embezzlement and homicide. While his representation was of vital importance to his clients, the size of those cases paled in comparison to the enormity of the matters he pursued as U.S. attorney for the 41-county Eastern District of Tennessee.
During his tenure, which began in 2010, Killian directed the investigation of several matters involving national security, including the Chattanooga shootings that resulted in the deaths of five servicemen.
He also personally participated in the negotiation of the settlement in the Pilot Flying J case, the largest corporate financial penalty collected in the history of the district.
And Killian had a hand in mediating the Hill-Rom matter, the largest civil health care fraud settlement in the history of the district.
Killian has no intention of scaling back now that he’s in private practice. “My cases are more serious, more complex and more consequential than they used to be,” he acknowledges. “I believe that’s based on my experiences as a U.S. attorney.”
Killian’s experiences have always shaped his life, reaching all the way back to the injustices he and his childhood friends suffered as the targets of a neighborhood bully in South Pittsburg.
“I grew up playing with a kid named Joey. He was bigger than the rest of us, so he’d grab us, sit on us and make us cry,” Killian says, smiling at the chance to dig into his pocket of stories. “One day, when I was 8, I went crying to my mother and told her Joey had sat on me. She said, ‘The next time you come crying to me about Joey, I’m going to whip you.’
“The next day, we were playing, and when Joey grabbed me, I wailed off and knocked the stew out of him,” Killian continues. “He backed off and said he was just playing, and I told him we weren’t going to play like that anymore.”
Killian and his former tormentor became friends, which gave the future attorney the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others Joey wanted to bully.
A few years later, Killian found himself in a pro se situation when he decided to ask his first employer for a raise. “I was getting 75 cents a week to pick up trash at the local dairy bar. But when they doubled the size of the bar and the amount of trash increased, I didn’t get a raise,” he recalls.
Killian’s principal at his elementary school was part-owner of the dairy bar and the man he needed to see about an increase. With his father’s encouragement, Killian made an appointment, during which he presented his argument in favor of more pay.
Killian was successful in securing a 50-cent a week bump. “That was pretty good back when you could buy a Coke for a nickel,” Killian says, still smiling.
As Killian grew up, he continued to see things he felt were unjust, and he was unable to be silent in the midst of those wrongs. “Sometimes, I’d wish I’d kept quiet, but I couldn’t,” he remembers.
While Killian’s early experiences molded his thinking, they didn’t steer him toward the law. Neither did his father’s 20 years of service as Marion County’s General Sessions and Circuit Court clerk. Instead, Killian reserves that honor for Otis Stephens, a blind political science professor at UT.
“He was the best professor I had,” Killian says. “He made the material fun and interesting while motivating you to learn more. I did so well in his constitution law and courts and adjudication courses, I decided to go to law school.”
Killian worked as the city attorney for Monteagle during his early years as a lawyer and tried hundreds of cases in local, state and federal courts as a sole practitioner in Jasper. This long chapter in his life also saw him serve in the U.S. Army and Tennessee National Guard, do two brief stretches as an assistant district attorney (1976-1979 and 1988-1990) and work as an approved mediator for the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Then came the day Killian realized Sen. Barack Obama had a shot at being elected president. He then realized he would be a strong candidate for U.S. attorney, and his workman-like march through the decades turned to ambition to reach a higher level of service.
Killian interviewed with the Department of Justice in January and April 2010, met with Attorney General Eric Holder in May and was attending a pro bono awards ceremony at Lindsay Street Hall on May 20 when Congressman Lincoln Davis called to tell him the president would be nominating him within the hour. “It was a remarkable moment,” he says.
Killian was sworn into office on Oct. 4 after unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The five years that followed were productive. Under Killian’s leadership, his office secured landmark settlements in corporate and healthcare fraud cases, curbed the illegal distribution of prescription drugs and joined with local partners – including the Chattanooga Police Department – in combatting violent crime.
Killian’s office also established new records for asset forfeiture collections and the number of individuals convicted for illegally distributing prescription pills. In addition, his district prosecuted one of the highest numbers of federal firearms offenses in the nation.
Killian’s office further participated with local, state and federal agencies and task forces to address organized gang activity and established new records for child sex trafficking and child pornography convictions.
“Our efforts in Chattanooga with regard to the gang problem were strong,” Killian explains. “That’s a complex issue that doesn’t get solved overnight, but the efforts we made with the local police department are still reaping benefits.”
As the ultimate authority in his district, Killian followed the example of a former U.S. attorney he knew. “He told me he indicted one perjury case a year so everyone would wonder if they were going to be next,” Killian says. “If you never bring charges in a certain area, there’s no deterrence. You don’t have to indict and prosecute every case in an area, but you have to do one every now and then.”
Killian adds his most memorable moments as U.S. attorney include intercepting a shipment of nearly 70 counterfeit airbags from a Chinese manufacturer. The efforts of his office resulted in investigations and prosecutions in 30 federal districts within the U.S. and on four continents.
Killian’s office also investigated and convicted two former engineers of stealing trade secrets from their previous employer, an American multinational tire manufacturer.
But the story that can cause even the strongest heart to skip a beat involves Killian investigating and directing the prosecution of foreign national scientists who were trying to sell nuclear secrets from a U.S. utility company to China.
This and other cases of national security interest opened Killian’s eyes to the truly sobering nature and vast scope of his job.
“When I became the U.S. attorney, I didn’t realize how much importance the position held,” he admits. “It encompasses a lot of responsibilities in a lot of areas, and a lot of things went on that people not only didn’t know about but will never know.”
Killian says his primary objective as an attorney has always been to uncover the facts and then do the right thing. In this respect, his assessment of his performance as U.S. attorney is mostly positive.
“I did as good of a job as I could do,” he says. “There are things I wish I had done better, but I think my reputation is that I didn’t pick and choose who we prosecuted. We prosecuted people based on the facts, not on politics or anything else.”
Killian also strived to be fair, and says he believes he was. “You’re the mechanism of justice for the Department of Justice in your district, which carries a great responsibility to do the right thing,” he continues. “I tried my best in that regard and don’t regret any of the decisions I made.”
Killian’s regrets seem minor when held up against his accomplishments. He wishes he’d rearranged the personnel in his office more effectively and says there were matters with which he should have been more directly involved.
“I should have been more engaged in the investigation of certain matters,” he says. “But a lot of matters cross your desk on that job, and there are only so many hours in the day, so you have to assess priorities and be efficient.”
Killian declines to be more specific but does say he fielded his share of criticism. Indeed, one does not have to dig deep to find news reports of the hostile crowd Killian faced at a July 2013 event in Manchester intended to improve relations between local residents and their Muslim neighbors. Inflamed commentary accusing Killian of squashing free speech is also a quick Google search away.
Killian took the criticism in stride, having already developed a thick skin during three decades as a defense attorney. “I came in having been maligned on many occasions for having defended or represented certain people,” he says. “It reminds you to make sure your decisions are sound and that there’s a good and right reason for them.
“Even then, some people might disagree with you, but they’re not going to disagree with how you decided it, and they’re not going to think you did something that had even the appearance of impropriety.”
In other words, Killian let the results serve as his defense.
“I think people recognize that I was called upon to make decisions that were at the top of the heap of decisions that needed to be made,” he says. “Pilot Flying J was the largest privately held corporation in the history of Tennessee. However much criticism I got along the way, the corporation paid $92 million in lieu of criminal penalty and 17 of 18 individuals were convicted.”
Killian’s most visible moment as U.S. attorney came in the hours following the July 16, 2015, terrorist attack in Chattanooga. Following a press conference later that day, he was widely quoted as saying the authorities were treating the incident as an act of domestic terrorism, only for the FBI to immediately counter his statement by saying it would be premature to speculate on the motives of the shooter.
Trying to convince Killian to talk about the July 16 shootings is like prodding a reluctant soldier for war stories, but he does say he did his best to reassure the public, even as he was barred from communicating all the facts.
“As the chief federal law enforcement officer, you have to exhibit a degree of confidence because society is worried about what’s going on, and even though you can’t reveal everything you know, you can make statements that allay fears and give people confidence that society is in order,” he points out.
Five months later, with two years left in Obama’s final term, Killian submitted his resignation to the president and announced he was joining a national law firm.
“Knowing my time would be over relatively soon after the Obama administration ended, I wanted to leave on my own terms,” Killian says.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch wished Killian well as he began the next chapter of his career, saying, “U.S. Attorney Bill Killian has served the people of the Eastern District of Tennessee, and all Americans, with extraordinary distinction. Bill displayed impeccable judgment, impressive skill, and an unerring sense of fairness. Thanks to his dedicated service, the United States is a safer and more just place. I commend him on a job well done.”
After stepping down as U.S. attorney, Killian spent a few years searching for a permanent home. Less than two years with the Chattanooga office of Polsinelli segued to an even shorter tenure with Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, which was announced with great fanfare in January.
“Bill is a great addition to the firm,” said Max Bahner, senior counsel at Chambliss, at the time. “His broad range of experience, especially as a former U.S. attorney and trial lawyer, will complement the depth of talent in the firm’s litigation and governmental compliance practice groups.”
Not long after Killian had settled in, Chambliss Bahner decided it wanted no part in the opioid litigation, so they quickly parted ways. “There are no hard feelings,” Killian says. “It was a business decision. Max is still one of my favorite folks, and he’s very complimentary of me.”
Killian has found a more compatible pairing at Leitner Williams, which is primarily a litigation firm. Not only does he know many of the attorneys there, having had cases against them over the years, he’s also worked with them on matters from time to time.
Gary Napolitan, a member of Leitner Williams, says Killian’s wealth of knowledge in government relations, federal investigations, administrative and regulatory compliance, and civil and criminal defense matters are valuable additions to the firm.
He also says the contacts Killian has cultivated through the years have been helpful. “He has people on his cell phone most of us would only dream of being able to contact,” Napolitan says.
Napolitan adds that Killian has simply meshed well with everyone at the firm. “He’s personable and always available to assist others,” he says.
“I think Bill enjoys being here and we certainly enjoy having him.”
Killian does like working with Leitner Williams and is pleased to have found a home for his practice. “I’m where I belong,” he says. “It’s working out well.”
Killian remains active in other ways as well. A prolific speaker, he presented the keynote address at the recent meeting of the Tennessee Defense Lawyers Association at the Westin in Chattanooga, and on Nov. 15 in Nashville, chaired an American Bar Association panel on white collar investigations. In addition, Killian is serving on the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility as a hearing officer.
Throughout his storied career, Killian has also done extensive pro bono work, taught civil and criminal trial advocacy at UT’s School of Law, and contributed his expertise to a long list of committees, working groups and boards.
Killian has also found enjoyable pursuits outside the law, including co-hosting a sports talk show for local access TV and radio for 18 years. (A good way to kick start a conversation with Killian would be to ask how his favorite movie, “Bull Durham,” offers a perfect story of life told through baseball.)
Today, Killian enjoys spending time with his wife, Donna, and his children and grandchildren.
He says he’s proud of his son, Andy, a local veterinarian, and daughter, Lindsay, a sustainability coordinator at North Carolina State University.
Killian has led a full and rewarding life. He ascended to the highest levels of the law, worked with history makers and accomplished things few people will ever know.
A bookshelf next to his desk at Leitner Williams displays several photographs that touch on the heights Killian has scaled. In one, he’s shaking the hand of President Obama at the Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga; in another, he’s greeting Vice President Biden as he arrives in the city to attend the memorial service for the soldiers killed in the terrorist attack; and in a third, he’s standing next to Lynch in the federal courthouse in Selma.
But Killian says there’s been nothing prouder in his career than serving as U.S. attorney. “There are 93 U.S. attorneys at any one time, and I think you’ll find that to be the case with all of them, whether they served under Bush, Clinton, or Reagan,” he says.
“I don’t know of a position that holds more esteem than U.S. attorney. Maybe being attorney general of the United States.