By Cliff Collins
Portland police detectives affectionately call her 'The Stalker,' a nickname Karin J. Immergut accepts hesitantly but good-naturedly, because she understands the implication: that she leaves no stone unturned.
That latter phrase defines her relentless style in pursuing information on cases. It also pretty much sums up her career so far. Named U.S. attorney for Oregon last October, Immergut has left no stones unturned, whether she was questioning Monica Lewinsky about former President Clinton, or a local con man out to rip off senior citizens. At just 43, she has already amassed an impressive résumé as a prosecutor in Los Angeles and Portland, and vaulted to the top spot in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Oregon in less than two years.
While working as a Multnomah County assistant district attorney, she was summoned to Washington, D.C., in 1998 by independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Her responsibilities included examining witnesses before the federal grand jury, including Lewinsky, Betty Currie and Sidney Blumenthal. She says it was unnerving at first when the press called out to her by name when she went to and from the grand jury. Despite, or because of, the pressures of being in the eye of the storm then, Immergut looks back on that five-month experience as 'a once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity in her development as a lawyer.
Immergut joined the U.S. attorney’s office as an assistant U.S. attorney three months following 9/11, and she says the terrorist threat 'certainly adds a level of pressure to the position' of U.S. attorney. 'I spend a lot of time just worrying, ‘Are we doing everything we can to make this area safe?’' Terrorism created the challenge for law enforcement officials of trying to 'protect people’s rights and still make people safe,' she says.
Her path to prosecutor began in Brooklyn, New York, where Immergut was born to an Austrian father and a Swedish mother, who immigrated after marrying in Sweden. Immergut grew up speaking both Swedish and English. Her father holds a doctorate in polymer chemistry, and her mother is a retired mathematics professor. No one in Immergut’s family was in the legal field, and she says her parents probably would have liked her to become a physician or professor.
Instead, she became interested in the 'sociology of crime and behavior' during high school, and after finishing at Amherst College worked in the New York City Urban Fellows program and volunteered with the Department of Corrections.
'Growing up in a city like that, you become very attuned to crime at an early age and are constantly vigilant. What interested me was what makes people do that, and how should society deal with it. That led me to be a lawyer. It struck me that if I really wanted to make a difference and help people with the criminal justice system, I had to be a lawyer or a judge.'
Immergut says she chose to go to law school at the University of California, Berkeley, because of the school’s caliber and comparatively low tuition. After finishing, she spent a year in a Washington, D.C., firm before moving to a position in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.
She stayed six years in that post, acquiring experience prosecuting complex narcotics and money-laundering cases, as well as supervising and training other assistant U.S. attorneys. She also gained court experience by trying 16 federal cases and arguing appeals before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Immergut then decided she wanted to live closer to her parents, but without moving back to New York. After a single visit to Burlington, Vt., she landed a job there with a 17-lawyer firm, where she remained for two years and handled a broad range of litigation.
In 1996, Immergut visited Portland for a week’s vacation and held 'informational' job interviews. Her reasons for coming were personal: She was by then dating James T. McDermott, a litigation partner with Ball Janik. They had been friends since being associates together 10 years before in Washington, D.C., and the relationship had grown. When the Multnomah County district attorney’s office quickly offered her a position, things 'moved faster than I planned,' and she ended up taking the job and then marrying McDermott just over a year later.
During five years as assistant district attorney, Immergut worked in the white-collar crime section, and she took particular pride in prosecuting a number of 'elder fraud cases,' such as one where a 91-year-old woman’s children stole money from her. It is an area 'I feel passionate about,' says Immergut, who came to know and admire many lawyers who practice in the area of elder law, much of which ends up being pro bono, she adds.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Janice R. Wilson, in whose courtroom Immergut tried many cases, says Immergut is exceptional in combining intellect with thoroughness. 'She brings a balanced approach to her work. Karin really exemplifies (the concept) ‘My goal is justice.’ '
Immergut is an avid runner, though she has had to curtail that and most other activities outside her job and being with her husband and their 4-year-old daughter. Immergut has stopped longing to become a judge, she says. 'This is the greatest job I can imagine having.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area free-lance writer.
© 2004 Cliff Collins