Alumnus named Federal Employee of the Year
Federal work isn’t always glamorous, but last summer, Department of Justice attorney Joshua Van Eaton was regularly mobbed by photographers exiting hearings in San Francisco.
In a case that captured national attention, Van Eaton ’97 was the lead attorney on a team that litigated and negotiated a $4.3 billion civil settlement with Volkswagen.
“The publicity in this case is pretty unusual for what we do,” says Van Eaton. “Dealing with roving packs of photographers was not something I was used to before this case.”
In September, Van Eaton, a trial attorney for nine years with the DOJ, earned the Federal Employees of the Year award from the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, along with team members from the Environmental Protection Agency, Phillip A. Brooks and Byron Bunker.
They won for their roles uncovering a scandal known as “Dieselgate.”
In 2015, the EPA discovered Volkswagen was deliberately cheating greenhouse gas emissions tests for some of its diesel vehicles by installing “defeat devices,” which allowed up to 600,000 vehicles in the U.S. to emit more toxic chemicals than allowed under the federal Clean Air Act.
“The egregiousness of their behavior just shocks the conscience,” Van Eaton says. “This company set out on a very intentional course of deception and cheating for a period of many years, and once their behavior was discovered, attempted to cover it up.”
Van Eaton led a team of 14 attorneys “working around the clock” on multidistrict litigation, with settlement negotiations running parallel. Van Eaton also served as the interagency liaison, meeting weekly with other government plaintiffs as well as the assistant attorney general.
“One of my roles was to know everything that was going on,” he says. Ultimately, the Justice Department settled the civil Clean Air Act claims with Volkswagen for nearly $17.5 billion in total relief, plus a $2.8 billion criminal fine.
President Donald Trump praised their work in a letter read at the Service to America award ceremony, which is known as the “Oscars of government.” Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short and Moneyball, presented the award to Van Eaton and his colleagues from the EPA.
A movie is already in the works based on the case to be produced by Paramount and Leonardo DiCaprio’s company Appian Way.
“This wasn’t just us, this was a team. We had an amazing team of dedicated, hardworking public servants,” Van Eaton said in his speech.
Eaton has been a government attorney his entire career, in the Army JAG Corps and then for the DOJ. He took his first law class as an undergrad at Seattle Pacific University from Alec Hill, former dean of SPU’s then School of Business and Economics, and credits SPU for teaching him the life skills he applies to leading massive team efforts such as this.
An ongoing “life mentor,” in Van Eaton’s words, is former SPU Vice President of Campus Life Steve Moore, now with M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
“Josh was known then, as now, as a person of deep integrity, an articulate and thoughtful and outspoken leader,” Moore says. “He continues to be a nononsense, get-it-done, down-to-earth person who is willing to give 110 percent.”