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Small Town Upbringing, Big City Success

August 23, 2017

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From the Summer 2017 Western The Magazine for Alumni of Western Illinois University

By Darcie Dyer Shinberger and Brad Bainter

From the rural McDonough County hamlet of Bushnell, IL, (pop. 3,000) to the top floor of a prominent law firm on Wacker Drive in Chicago, Dan Webb is miles from home, but he's still that "nice rural boy" who interviewed with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago in 1970.

Webb, Winston & Strawn LLP's co-chair has taken down corrupt police officials and top ranking military brass, cross-examined the 40th President of the United States and defended clients from governors to Fortune 50 companies in his 45-year law career, which started at the age of 21 in Chicago. A look at how he rose to the ranks of one of the most prestigious firms in the country foreshadows his career success and his ability to win in the court of law.

Bushnell Roots & McDonough County "Gumption"

Webb was born and raised in Bushnell, about 15 miles northeast of Macomb. While he lived in town, his grandparents had a farm outside of Bushnell, where Webb spent much of his youth.

"I spent more time than I wanted working for my grandfather at 30 cents an hour. I was cheap labor—I milked cows, baled hay ... you name it," Webb laughed. "I did that for a number of years, until I started detasseling corn in the summer for DeKalb because they paid better than grandpa."

Webb said he really didn't have any idea what he wanted to do with his future. It was his Bushnell High School guidance counselor, Josephine Johnson '55 MS-Ed '58 (who later came to Western and served over the years as a faculty member, counselor, director of enrollment, special assistant to the president and vice president for advancement and public services)who gave him a book about famous lawyers and also got Webb involved involved in the school's debate team.

"I was good at it, and after debating and reading about the lawyers, and with Josephine's encouragement, I decided I was going to be a trial lawyer," he explained.

Webb enrolled at WIU, which had a 3+1 pre-law partnership program with the University of Illinois. Students would go for three years at Western, transfer to the U of I law school and after completing a successful first year, would obtain their bachelor's degree from WIU, while getting a head start on their law degree. While fulfilling all his prerequisites at Western and buckling down during the school year, Webb returned to Bushnell every summer to work at the hammer factory by day and run card games at night at Eve's Pool Hall to earn money for the following school year. During the year, he worked as a resident assistant in Lincoln Hall in order to get the room and board benefit.

Webb was at WIU from 1963-66 and was set to transfer to Illinois in Fall 1966, when the flagship school abolished the program.

"I wanted to get going. I did what I needed to do at WIU to transfer, and I decided I was going to law school after three years here like I had planned," Webb said. "I applied to Loyola and a few others, and I got an interview with Loyola because the dean had made a mistake reading my transcript."

Western was on quarters at that time, but the law school dean read his transcript as if he had completed four years of school.

"I took the train to Union Station on the day of my interview; I didn't have any money for a cab, so I walked to Loyola," he recalled. "I walked into Dean Hayes' office, and he said 'Oh my gosh, I've made a mistake. You've only finished three years of school and don't have a bachelor's degree.' I proceeded to tell the dean that I was ready for law school and that the program I had counted on had been canceled without due process. It was my first (and finest) closing argument, and I'll be damned if he didn't accept me on the spot.

"I don't think I would have ever become a lawyer if Dean Hayes hadn't accepted me," Webb added. "Staying at WIU one more year wasn't in the cards for me. I loved it, but I was ready to begin my career as a trial lawyer.

"Josephine really charted my course. I owe a lot of my career to her. She saw me as hell on wheels in debate and clearly steered me toward law. I owe a lot to Dean Hayes as well for his mistake," he laughed. "But when I was in law school at Loyola, I was always so afraid someone was going to find out I didn't have my undergraduate degree and here I was at law school."

Webb finished Loyola in 1970, four years after he first started. It took him a bit longer than most of the "traditional students" as he ran out of money midway through and had to switch to night school and work in a bank during the day. Yet, he never gave up his dream of being a trial attorney.

"Nice but Rural" & On the Map

After his graduation from Loyola, Webb knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer, but in order to do that, he had to get to the trials, so he needed to get to a U.S. court to get that experience. William (Bill) Bauer was serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois at the time, with (former Illinois Gov.) Jim Thompson and Sam Skinner serving as assistants, and the three men interviewed Webb to work in the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"In later years, I saw my file from that interview, and Jim and Sam recommended me for the job, but Bill had written down, "NBBR." I asked what that meant, and he finally told me, "nice boy, but rural," Webb laughed. "That 'nice but rural' air about me I guess made them think I'd be able to talk to, and relate to, folks. Jim always said I was a farm kid who could talk to juries.

"My roots, my foundation and my speaking pattern had been formed before I moved to Chicago," he added. "And during the Chicago Police Department corruption trial, the media even went as far as making fun of the way I talked. I was explaining money-laundering to the jury, and I used the term 'warshing board.' We grew up saying 'warshing' as 'washing,' and I still say it that way. The media picked up on it and had some fun with it. So, while you can live somewhere else a long time, your speaking habits don't necessarily change. And my roots have kept me grounded."

That trial was Webb's first big trial, which took place in 1971, under Thompson, who had been named U.S. attorney when Bauer was appointed to a seat on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The corruption case focused on organized crime and payoffs to Chicago police officials. Webb said a strike force discovered that organized crime was paying off Rush, Old Street and 18th Street police, and gamblers were paying off the 18th Precinct commander. Further investigations revealed that clubs and bars on Rush were paying off members of the vice squad. The strike force wanted a young lawyer, and that young lawyer was Webb.

"Twenty-three police officers were indicted. One year out of law school, this made my career." he said.

Webb's former boss, Bauer, was the presiding judge, and Webb managed a conviction for every officer involved with the exception of two. When asked if he had ever feared for his safety during this trial, which involved organized crime, Webb said he was never worried about his life, rather he was worried about not winning.

"A few of the cops had flipped and became our witnesses, but there was so much to keep straight and to get all of that in front of the jury," Webb added. "But I got my point across. Winning that case was important, and that trial put me on the map."

Interviewing "Dutch"

Webb was named U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in 1981. It was during that time that Operation Greylord erupted. The trial, which took years, saw more than 93 public officials—including 17 judges—indicted, and most were convicted.

"I met with then-U.S. Attorney Tom Sullivan, who was leaving the office, and he was going to brief me on the case. He told me, 'There are two boxes back there. One is going to break up your marriage, and one is going to keep you from practicing law.' Operation Greylord was an undercover operation that uncovered bribery, fraud and corruption. Cardinal Cody was involved, and if he had been indicted, that would have broken up my marriage, and if the judges were indicted, that could affect my future as a lawyer according to Tom," Webb explained. "But I did indict judges and it didn't affect my career. The vast majority of judges are honest and above board. I think a lot of them saw the indictments as a positive for the judicial system. And Cardinal Cody passed away before he was indicted, so my marriage stayed intact."

Webb left the federal attorney's office to join Winston & Strawn in 1985, to once again work alongside his former boss Jim Thompson. However, he had not yet seen an end to his career as a federal prosecutor. Within two years, he was called back to the U.S. Attorney's Office as a special prosecutor for the Lafever case and then the high-profile Koschman case, which involved the Chicago Mayor's nephew, Richard J. "R.J." Vanecko, who was convicted of manslaughter. His final stint as a special prosecutor came in 1990, trying Admiral John Poindexter for his involvement with the Iran-Contra Affair and deposing President Ronald Reagan as part of the trial.

"President Reagan was a major witness for Poindexter, but I also did not want this to be a spectacle, nor did I want to disrespect the Office of the President of the United States, so we opted to obtain his testimony via deposition," Webb explained. "I flew to California for the interview, and we took the deposition in an empty courtroom in LA. It was surreal.

"Poindexter's lawyers had President Reagan on most of the day, and I needed to get back to D.C. and only had one hour or so left. I began to cross-examine him and he became difficult," he recalled. "He began giving testimony that was damaging to my case, so I had to ask for a continuance so I could come back the next morning. I prepped all night and I had to be more aggressive than I had originally planned. I had completely misjudged how he would react when I first cross-examined him, so the next day, I was much more aggressive and cross-examined the president for several hours. And it seemed to work, as the jury ruled in the prosecution's favor. You just don't know how a witness is going to react, so you have to be able to adjust."

Controversial Cases & Communication

After the Iran-Contra hearings, Webb returned to Winston-Strawn. In the years that followed, he has defended such former politicians as U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan; high profile companies such as GE, Microsoft, Bank of America and Philip Morris; cities such as Ferguson, MO; and most recently, Ukranian oligarch Dmytro Vasylovych Firtash. Webb is currently spending the next three months in the western region of the U.S. trying a defamation case for a South Dakota business against ABC News and Diane Sawyer.

"I've tried some controversial cases and I've been involved in complex situations," he said. "I haven't won them all, of course, and some are harder to take, like former Judge David Shields. I was devastated to lose this case. When the jury came back with a guilty verdict, I was sick to my stomach for days. I felt, and still feel, he was innocent."

When Webb is in the courtroom, even in the most complex of cases, he said he likes to keep it simple.

"If you try to talk over the jury, you'll lose the case," he explained. "And I'm not underestimating a jury's intelligence. The strength of a good trial lawyer is to keep it simple and speak to people in honest terms."

Small Town Upbringing & Success

Webb's peers at the firm and in the courtroom have told him over the course of his nearly 50-year law career that he still has the "NBBR" touch. Webb agreed that he still has those McDonough County roots engrained deep within.

"My small town upbringing has facilitated much of my success," he said. "Growing up in Bushnell and working at Vaughn Hammer Factory gave me the ability to talk to folks. Going to Western, where I experienced diversity and expanded my horizons, was a great learning exercise that has served me well throughout my life and career."

After practicing law for nearly half a century, when asked if he was ready to "slow down," Webb laughed and simply replied, "I keep saying I'm going to slow down, but it hasn't happened yet."

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