Ambassador to Italy and San Marino: Who Is John Phillips?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The new ambassador to Italy and the micro-state of San Marino is an Italian-American public interest attorney who owns a villa in Tuscany and has visited Italy “more than 50 times in the last decade.” John R. Phillips, whose nomination was confirmed by the Senate along with several others on August 1, succeeds David Thorne, who had served in Rome since August 2009.


Born in late 1942 and raised 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Leechburg, Pennsylvania (1950 pop.: 4,042), which he has described as “a bustling steel and coal-mining area [with] a lot of jobs. I walked to school and you knew everybody.” His paternal grandfather, Angelo Filippi, emigrated from the Friuli region of Italy to Pennsylvania, where he met his wife Lucy Colussy, also from Friuli. At his Senate hearing, Phillips said he regretted that the family name, Filippi, had been Americanized to Phillips. According to his aunt, Edna Logero, the name changed when her older brother William first went to school and the “teacher said Phillips was more American. My dad was furious over that.” William, who grew up to become Phillips’ father, later owned a Ford dealership in Leechburg.


John Phillips graduated Leechburg High School in 1960, and after a two-year hitch in the military, earned a B.A. in Government and International Studies at Notre Dame University in 1966 and a J.D. at the University of California Law School, known as Boalt Hall, in 1969. Showing early on the sense of humor he has become known for, while at Notre Dame he ran for class president with the slogan, “Phillips 66.”


After law school, Phillips joined the Los Angeles mega-law firm of O’Melveny & Meyers as an associate. He left after two years to co-found one of the first Ford Foundation funded public interest law firms--the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, which focused on environmental, civil rights, corporate fraud and other issues. Phillips served as its co-director for 17 years, from 1971 to 1988. From 1984 to 1986, Phillips played a role in urging Congress to revise the False Claims Act by strengthening provisions that allow whistleblowers to bring lawsuits on behalf of the government against persons or corporations that are defrauding the government. The amendments went into effect in 1986.


In 1988, Phillips founded his own law firm, Phillips & Cohen, based in Washington, DC, to specialize in whistleblower cases. At his Senate confirmation hearing, Phillips testified that his firm had helped recover $55 billion from companies that were defrauding the government. The National Law Journal has included him on several of its “100 most influential lawyers in America” lists. Phillips retired from his firm this year in order to accept the posting to Italy.


From 1988 to 1993, Phillips was an appointed member of the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference. He was also appointed, in 1997, by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships, of which President Obama named Phillips chair in 2009.


Phillips is the founder of Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonprofit that promotes the use of the False Claims Act and its qui tam provisions to fight fraud against the government, and served on its board of directors until 2013.


In 2001, Phillips bought and over eight years restored and redeveloped the ruined remains of an abandoned, 13th century Tuscan farming village named “Borgo Finoccchieto.” It now consists of a luxurious boutique hotel, five buildings on six acres surrounded by farmlands that can accommodate up to 44 guests for weddings, events and retreats. “By living there and getting to know the people, I know it very well,” he said.


A lifelong Democrat, Phillips has donated more than $200,000 to Democratic candidates and organizations over the years, including $106,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $9,600 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.


John Phillips has been married more than 40 years to Linda Douglass, a former ABC correspondent who was a campaign spokeswoman for Barack Obama in 2008, helped organize his first inauguration, and served as director of Communications for the White House Office of Health Reform from 2009 to 2010. They have a daughter, Dr. Katie Byrd, who is an emergency room physician at George Washington University Hospital.

-Matt Bewig

To Learn More:

Official Biography

Leechburg Native Confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Italy (by Debra Duncan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (pdf)

Ambassador to Italy proud of Leechburg roots, Italian heritage (by Brian C. Rittmeyer, Valley News Dispatch)

John R. Phillips is the New US Ambassador to Italy (by Giulia Madron, i-Italy)


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