Ambassador John Phillips
John R. Phillips (born December 15, 1942) is an American diplomat and attorney, and the former United States Ambassador to Italy and San Marino, serving from 2013 to 2017.As a partner at Phillips & Cohen, LLP (1988–2013) and before that, in Los Angeles, he practiced public interest law, specializing in whistleblower cases that recovered billionsof dollarsfrom companies defrauding the government.
Early life and education
Phillips was born and grew up in Leechburg, Pennsylvania, a small steel mill town in western Pennsylvania. His grandparents emigrated from Italy in the early 1900s. Their family name was Americanized and changed from “Filippi” to “Phillips.”
Phillips received a B.A. degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1966, and a J.D. degree in 1969 from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall), where he was a member of the editorial board of the California Law Review.
Phillips joined the Los Angeles, California, law firm O’Melveny & Myers as an associate in 1969. After two years, he left to start one of the first Ford Foundation-funded public interest law firms, the Center for Law in the Public Interest (CLIPI), in Los Angeles with three former colleagues.
Center for Law in the Public Interest
Phillips was co-director of CLIPI for 17 years. During that time, the firm was a major force litigating landmark environmental, civil rights, consumer protection and corporate fraud and accountability cases. Some of its court cases include the following:
- Forced major revisions to the design and construction of the 17-mile $2.6 billion Century Freeway in Los Angeles to minimize the negative impact on the Watts neighborhood. The consent decree required construction of Los Angeles’s first rail rapid transit line in the meridian of the freeway, construction of 5,000 affordable housing units to replace those that were removed and the hiring and training for construction jobs of women and minorities from the area impacted by the building of the freeway.
- Through court decrees, forced the Los Angeles Police and Fire Departments to hire more women and minorities.
- Exposed foreign bribes and payoffs by US corporations to foreign governments. Those lawsuits and the following admissions by more than 400 US corporations to the Securities and Exchange Commission that they also made foreign bribes and payoffs led directly to the passage of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by Congress in 1977.
- Won consumer class actions suit against Toyota Motors resulting in a recall and repair of a brake problem in Toyota’s first Camry model and consumer class action against Sprint for overcharging its customers. For fuller discussion of the work of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, see the half hour interview from 1980 with Phillips on the PBS program Profiles in Power.
Phillips played a significant role in the creation of the US government’s very successful whistleblower reward program designed to encourage private citizens to expose and stop defense contractor fraud, Medicare fraud and other types of fraud against the government. He worked closely with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) to secure congressional passage of the amended False Claims Act with “Qui tam” (whistleblower) provisions which were signed into law by President Reagan in October 1986. The law has become the government’s primary tool in holding accountable corporations that have defrauded the U.S. government. To date, more than $70 billion has been recovered by the U.S. Treasury from companies that have defrauded the government. The benefit-to-cost ratio of the False Claims Act has been estimated at more than $20 for every $1 governments spend on enforcement.
Phillips started a private law practice, Phillips & Cohen LLP, in Los Angeles and later moved it to Washington, DC, and opened an office in San Francisco. It became the most successful law firm representing whistleblowers in False Claims Act cases. Some of the notable “qui tam” whistleblower lawsuits brought by his firm included record-setting cases against for-profit hospital chain HCA, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. Phillips retired from the law firm when he became ambassador to Italy. Cases initiated by Phillips’ firm have resulted in recoveries to the government of approximately $12.3 billion. See clips on the Today Show and interviews with Phillips on the enactment by Congress of the amendments to the False Claims Act (October, 1986) and two of Phillips & Cohens cases, GE and Singer (1992).
Shortly after passage of the amended False Claims Act, Phillips founded in 1986 Taxpayers Against Fraud, a non-profit group that is dedicated to educating the public about government whistleblower programs and advancing public and government support for whistleblower cases.
For a detailed description of seven successful cases filed by Phillips & Cohen under the False Claims Act, see Scammel, Henry (2005) Giant Killers; the Team and the Law that Helped Whistleblowers Recover America’s Stolen Billions.
John Phillips was selected by President Bill Clinton to be a member of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. He served from 1997 to 2001. In 2009, President Obama appointed Phillips to be the chairman of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, where he served for four years. He was an appointed member (1988) to serve on the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference.
President Obama appointed him as US Ambassador to Italy and San Marino in 2013.
As the American Ambassador to Italy, John Phillips made numerous speeches and public statements about important issues of the day, as well as cultural and historical matters that relate to the bond between the United States and Italy. Some of those statements include:
The Ambassador and his wife, Linda Douglass, prepared a video for the Italian people before their arrival in Italy on September 13, 2013.
Phillips’ first speech as ambassador was at the MAXXI museum in Rome, at the opening of an exhibit sponsored by the Robert Kennedy Foundation on freedom fighters of the civil rights movement in the United States, focusing on the role played by Martin Luther King, John kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
Ambassador Phillips traveled to the small villages of Poffabro and Frisanco in the Friuli region of Italy. From these two small villages Phillips’ grandparents and great-grandparents, Filippi and Colussi, emigrated to America in 1902 to seek a better life. He spoke about their struggle to survive life in Italy in their life in America.
Ambassador Phillips spoke at the Centro Studio Americano about the importance that all European and North American countries continue to support the sanctions imposed against Russia for its invasion of Crimea in the Ukraine.
At a conference he organized in Rome at Villa Taverna, the ambassador’s residence, he spoke about his role in resurrecting the anti-corruption law the False Claims Act, and why the same mechanisms that proved so successful in America could also be used in Italy to fight fraud against the government.
On several occasions the ambassador spoke about the bravery and sacrifice of American soldiers during World War II, including the landing at Anzio Beach, which began the liberation of Italy from the Nazi occupation, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Romeby American troop, the annual Memorial Day speeches at the Florence/American cemetery in 2015, with prime minister Renzi, in honor of more than 4000 American soldiers who there lay in repose, having given the ultimate sacrifice fighting for Italy’s liberation.
In 2016 the ambassador spoke often about the upcoming US elections, at a university on the island of Sardinia, to a gathering of 1200 Italians on election eve, and at a post-election retrospective at New York University’s Florence campus.
Reflecting on the tragedy of the Orlando massacre in 2016, where 49 people were killed in a nightclub, Phillips spoke to a gathering of Italian officials and Embassy personnel to mourn the victims of gun violence. Phillips has had a long history of being involved in efforts to curb handgun violence, which began in 1982 when he led and effort to gather 1 million signatures in California to place an initiative on the ballot to limit handgun violence. The initiative was unsuccessful.
At the US Embassy he addressed Italian officials on the importance of commercialization of science and research.
The ambassador financially supported and oversaw the refurbishing of the theater at the ambassador’s residence, Villa Taverna. There he addressed the audiences of numerous movies and documentaries: “winter on fire: uprising in The Ukraine”; A documentary on Steve jobs; and Richard Gere introduced his movie on homelessness in America.
The ambassador produced a video introducing the movie “Roman holiday” to 1000 Italians watching it in piazza de Spagna in Rome on the occasion the anniversary of what would have been Gregory Peck’s one hundredth birthday.
The public affairs department of the embassy made numerous videos with the participation of the Ambassador including; keeping 30,000 American student safe while studying in Italy; California Governor Jerry Brown on the Special Olympics; the Komen race for the cure of cancer; violence against women ; the importance of voting; encouraging entrepreneurship in Italy; program for young classical musicians; American wine; Milan expo 2015: feeding the planet; creation of mural art at Villa Taverna; the importance of judicial reform for Italy; repatriation to Italy of stolen art; teaching students how to grow vegetables; and honoring the 100th anniversary of the American Chamber of Commerce.
Throughout his tenure, Ambassador Phillips recorded numerous holiday greetings including a 2015 speech at the annual Fourth of July party at Villa Taverna; 2016 July 4 party at Villa Taverna; thanksgiving holiday greeting; and Christmas holiday greeting in 2015. In addition to having the opportunity to pilot an F-16 (along with a real pilot) and spend nine hours submerged in a nuclear submarine, he also had the opportunity to skydive. At a final town hall meeting with embassy staff in November 2016, Ambassador Phillips summarized the 3 1/2 years of his tenure and answered questions. Before his departure as Ambassador in January 2017, the Embassy staff prepared an arrivederci video and the Ambassador gave his farewell speech right afterwards, addressing guests at Villa Taverna before departing.
Phillips invested in a group of houses (a “borgo,” or village) in Tuscany in 2001 that were more than 800 years old and were in a ruined state. He spent eight years restoring and improving the buildings and grounds, following strict historic preservation rules. The Borgo Finocchieto,in Bibbiano, near Siena,which has a total of 22 bedrooms,is designed to host groups, small conferences and educational programs, and is loosely based on the AspenInstitute model. www.borgofinocchieto.com
Phillips was a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Academy in Rome from 2009 to 2013. He rejoined the board in March 2017 after steppingdown as ambassador. Hehas made more than 100 trips to Italy in his lifetime, and received the America Award of the Italy-USA Foundation in October 2017.
Awards and recognition
- “Litigators Hall of Fame,” Lawdragon
- National Law Journal’s “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.”
- Citation Award, Berkeley Law school’s highest honor, (link) for exceptional contributions to the bar, the bench, legal scholarship and the world.
- Taxpayers Against Fraud Lifetime Achievement Award.
- ACLU of Southern California Lifetime Achievement Award.
- 2013 Valenti Friend of the White House Fellows Award.
- Law firm founded by Phillips (Phillips & Cohen LLP) cited by National Law Journal in 2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2016 as being in the top 20 plaintiffs firms in the United States because of its “exemplary work.”
- Phillips & Cohen was included in the 2017 and 2018 list of US News & World Report’s “Best Law Firms.” Law firms on that list are recognized for “professional excellence with persistently impressive ratings from clients and peers.”
- In 1989, Phillips was elected to the CommonCauseNational Governing Board.
Phillips is married to Linda Douglass, a veteran journalist and communications strategist. They have a daughter who is an emergency room physician.