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The Bush administration did not look far to find a replacement for Department of Justice Criminal Division chief Michael Chertoff. The White House announced plans April 25 to nominate Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson’s top aide for the job — a key position both in the war on terrorism and in efforts to combat corporate crime. If confirmed, Christopher Wray, who is just 36 years old and virtually unknown outside the department, will be the youngest lawyer to head the Criminal Division in at least 20 years. The selection of a Justice Department insider for the post reflects the administration’s desire for continuity in counterterrorism initiatives launched in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It also points to a department culture that highly prizes loyalty and trust — often above age and even experience. “I’ve known Chris for a long time. He’s a colleague and a dear friend,” says Thompson, who is godfather to Wray’s six-year-old son. “I’ve always found Chris to be smart, reliable, and someone whose work I have a great deal of confidence in.” A former federal prosecutor in Atlanta, Wray has been intimately involved in policy decisions related to terrorism since joining the department in May 2001. He attends daily, top-secret security briefings with the attorney general and oversees activities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Criminal Division, and U.S. attorney’s offices. Those who have worked with Wray call him “unbelievably hard-working,” “a straight shooter,” and “very even-keeled.” “Chris has already demonstrated just how good he is in the key issues facing the Criminal Division,” says James Comey, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “They’ve essentially had him out for test drive for the past two years.” Some former DOJ officials wonder, however, if Wray possesses the gravitas and credibility to handle politically sensitive matters. “Chertoff brought a stature to the division, because he was so well-respected as a prosecutor and a defense attorney,” says one former Criminal Division lawyer. “Wray faces a challenge because he was never a senior prosecutor or an experienced defense attorney.” Thompson’s backing was clearly a key factor in Wray’s selection, and the deputy attorney general’s support will no doubt benefit Wray as he attempts to fill the void left by Chertoff. Chertoff was nominated in March for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. A New York native who lives with his wife and two children in Bethesda, Md., Wray first worked with Thompson as a summer associate at Atlanta’s King & Spalding, where Thompson was a prominent white collar criminal defense partner. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1992, Wray spent a year clerking for Judge J. Michael Luttig of the 4th Circuit. He then returned to King & Spalding, where he worked closely with Thompson and former Jimmy Carter Attorney General Griffin Bell. Four years later, Wray left for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia and quickly developed a reputation as hard-working and reliable. “Chris had a maturity far beyond the number of years he had practiced,” says F. Gentry Shelnutt, chief of the Criminal Division in the Atlanta office. “He was very much a quick study.” Daniel Griffin, a partner at Atlanta’s Miller & Martin who worked with Wray as an assistant U.S. attorney, says, “The hard cases would inevitably be assigned to him. The guy comes in to work. He doesn’t gossip. He stays as long as it takes. He’d be there on the weekends when the air conditioner wasn’t running. And he’s got great sense. As they say in the South, he’s got ‘walking-around sense.’ “ Wray started out prosecuting violent crime cases and ultimately gravitated toward fraud and public corruption. One of Wray’s final cases — a corruption scandal involving a prominent area businessman and Atlanta’s City Hall — pit him against his longtime mentor. Thompson represented Raymond McClendon, a securities trader accused of bribing a city official for investment business and then lining his pockets through transactions that cost the city $18 million. After an intense three-week trial, Wray and Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Vineyard won the case; Thompson’s client was sentenced to six and a half years in jail. “This was a hard-fought trial,” says Thompson’s co-counsel Bruce Maloy of Atlanta’s Maloy & Jenkins. “You could not have told they had a close relationship.” But Wray and Thompson did remain close. When Thompson took the deputy AG position at Main Justice in May 2001, he brought Wray with him as his top assistant. “Both the attorney general and I rely on him,” says Thompson. Wray declined comment. According to a source familiar with the selection process, the administration only seriously considered one individual for the Criminal Division post who was not currently working either at Main Justice or as a U.S. attorney. The lawyer, Richard Cullen, is a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and former Virginia attorney general. Cullen, who heads the white collar defense team at Richmond’s McGuireWoods, declined to comment. Comey and Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, were also considered to replace Chertoff. Chertoff was 47 and had served as U.S. attorney for New Jersey when he was nominated for the Criminal Division post. Recent alumni of the assistant AG position include Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft partner James Robinson, who was 54 and had served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan when nominated; Jo Ann Harris, who was 60 and had spent decades practicing law as a prosecutor and a defense attorney; and current FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was in his mid-40s and had served as U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Although Wray may not fit the mold of the Criminal Division’s previous chiefs, colleagues say there can be no question he is qualified. “Despite the fact that he’s young, he’s a spectacular choice,” says Comey. “He may be only 36, but he has proven himself.”

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