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An accident of fate deposited James B. Comey at the center of the war against corporate crime — the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Comey wanted to be U.S. Attorney, but in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he and his wife had hoped to raise their five children. He lost out to Paul McNulty, and continued to work in the district’s Richmond office. Then the call came with the New York offer. “At first I thought it was one of my wise guy friends,” says Comey, 41. It was no joke, and Comey hauled his family back to New York, where in January he succeeded Mary Jo White, the woman who was once his boss. At 6 feet 8 inches, Comey towers over White. But figuratively she left huge shoes to fill — a legendary office graced by three traditions that White also inherited: autonomy, excellence and hard work. Add the scene Comey returned to — a city wracked by epic acts of terrorism and corporate fraud. Factor in scrutiny from Washington, D.C., and it’s clear he has his hands full. In the last two months, Comey launched a string of headline-grabbing corporate prosecutions. Defendants include Samuel Waksal of ImClone Systems, accused of insider stock trading and related charges; John J., Timothy J. and Michael J. Rigas of Adelphia Communications Corp., accused of securities fraud in connection with appropriating millions of dollars of company funds and resources for personal use; and Scott D. Sullivan and David F. Meyers of WorldCom Inc., who face charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and related crimes. WorldCom has disclosed that it misstated its earnings by $7.2 billion and recently filed the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. With these and other corporate scandals becoming, next to national security, the top political issue of the day, Washington is closely following investigations and prosecutions. In July, President Bush created the Corporate Fraud Task Force by executive order and put Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson in charge. Comey is among the task force’s eight U.S. Attorneys. For him that translates into a delicate pas de trois with Washington heavyweights Attorney General John Ashcroft and Thompson. The task force strives to “very quickly come together to try to understand these corporate fraud investigations,” Thompson says. The Southern District, he says, “will be a very important and integral member of the task force.” The other United States Attorneys’ districts represented on the task force are the Eastern District of New York, the Eastern and Middle districts of Pennsylvania, the Central and Northern districts of California, the Northern District of Illinois and the Southern District of Texas, all districts “where there is a strong presence in financial markets,” Thompson says. COMEY’S START Were it not for crime boss “Fat Tony” Salerno, Comey might never have become a prosecutor at all, he says. He was fresh out of the University of Chicago Law School and sitting as a clerk to U.S. District Judge John Walker when two government lawyers changed his life arguing for Salerno’s detention. Comey was smitten: “How cool is this! Then I thought, that’s what I want to do with my life,” he says. Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Comey earned his undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary. Even during his college days, an eclectic personality that would serve him well in his career began to emerge. He went to college thinking he would be a doctor. One day he saw a class labeled “Death” on a campus bulletin board, took it, and wound up shifting, with twin majors in chemistry and religion. Then he went to law school. After law school and his federal clerkship, he worked briefly as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York. He landed a job in 1987 as a federal prosecutor with New York’s Southern District, then under the leadership of Rudy Giuliani. A string of others would head the office while Comey was there, including Otto B. Obermaier and White. Comey eventually became deputy chief of the criminal division. Comey’s favorite trial from those years was hairy, literally. “I had to prove that a multimillion-dollar fur robbery never happened but was instead part of an insurance fraud,” he says. “It was a ‘Colombo’-type case where using time windows and other made-for-TV clues. I had to prove a negative. It was a huge challenge, but we won it.” Family concerns prompted the move in 1993 to Virginia, where a hiring freeze foiled his chances to work as a federal prosecutor. Richard Cullen was U.S. Attorney and eager to bring on Comey. He linked Comey up with his former firm, McGuireWoods in Richmond, where Cullen eventually returned. Comey’s career as a prosecutor could have been derailed. Unlike many former federal prosecutors who move to private firms, Comey was not initially assigned to defend white-collar criminal cases, Cullen says. Instead, Comey was assigned to the civil litigation unit. He defeated an asbestos plaintiff at trial, a worker who claimed tens of millions of dollars for injuries suffered while working with asbestos-insulated turbines. Comey “didn’t get any joy” from watching the worker walk away with nothing, Cullen says. Comey asked for reassignment to complex financial cases and white-collar criminal defense work. Some of what Comey saw there was an eye-opener. One example: U.S. v. Wilkinson, in which a client was charged with fraud in connection with a $5 million line of credit that was used to prop up failing businesses. “In that case Jim and I both learned that prosecutors have awesome powers to charge,” Cullen says. “We would have gladly pled to a lesser count, but the prosecutor would not have it.” Comey tried the case, and lost. “I think he learned that prosecutors are human and that they’re not always right,” Cullen says. In 1996, Comey returned to the government’s team, this time to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Richmond. He made that small city flash on the Beltway’s radar by spearheading Project Exile, an aggressive effort to prosecute gun felonies. Sometime last fall, Comey got a call from the White House office of personnel saying he had been selected to be U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, one of the most high-profile Justice Department posts in the country. Although fighting terrorism is a top priority for the office, the scandals roiling Wall Street recently have taken over the top spot in the news. Comey says he is confident he has the resources he needs. Upon taking over, he was given 15 new Assistant U.S. Attorneys, and he has made some top-tier adjustments among the roughly 225 prosecutors on his staff. He brought in Karen Patton Seymour from Sullivan & Cromwell to be chief of the criminal division. He promoted David Kelley, former chief of the organized crime and terrorism unit, to Deputy United States Attorney, assigned Marla Alhadeff to lead the civil unit and put Richard Owens in charge of the securities and commodities fraud unit. Comey also named George Canellos and Jonathan Halpern co-chiefs of the major crimes unit. Richard Owens and Steven R. Peiken are Comey’s point men in the ImClone, Adelphia and WorldCom cases, and roughly seven assistants are assigned to those projects full time. White-collar cases are primarily handled by the major crimes and securities units, which together have about 50 lawyers. Comey calls them his shock troops in the battle against corporate crime. As for which U.S. Attorney’s office gets to go after corporate criminals, that ultimately resides with Ashcroft, Thompson says. “You have to make judgment calls,” explaining that federal prosecutors must sometimes work out venue and jurisdictional issues among themselves. The Adelphia Communications case presented a potential turf issue. Adelphia is based in Pennsylvania, and Comey says that his office coordinated efforts with the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The case was prosecuted in New York because that is where much of the alleged securities and bank fraud took place, Comey says. Comey had the limelight to himself when he announced the Waksal prosecution from New York. But that was in mid-June, shortly before the president created the fraud task force. Adelphia was announced in Washington, where Comey followed Thompson at the podium. Comey was third in line when WorldCom was announced from Washington on Aug. 1; he trailed Ashcroft and Thompson. Explaining the significance of this case, White says it is “very rare” for a case from the Southern District of New York to be announced in Washington. “It would appear that there is more Washington involvement than there has been in previous times.” PR OR NECESSITY? Whether the decisions come from New York or Washington, Comey is also getting plenty of ink from commentators for tactics decried by some as a public relations ploy, like the early morning arrests of Waksal and the Rigases. Comey says that it was his decision to allow the WorldCom defendants to surrender themselves to the FBI in New York. “We decide these things on a case-by-case basis,” Comey says. The decision depends on factors such as the “nature of the charges, nature of our contact with the defendant pre-charge, risk of flight, dangerousness, etc.,” he explains. “In his case, among other things, I considered the fact that [former WorldCom Chief Financial Officer Scott] Sullivan’s wife was in the hospital and he has a toddler at home he was caring for. Given the other factors, my desire to avoid traumatizing the child tipped the balance in favor of allowing him to surrender.” For Comey, these cases comprise the “crown jewel” of his office. “I’ve got so many smart young people who work like lunatics, and you put that together with the fact that we are the financial capital of the world.” The result, as Comey likes to say: “The place is really rocking.”

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