Jim Comey is laughing. As the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he holds one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement, at a time when the action has never been more intense. Around the corner from Comey’s downtown office, the first high-stakes test of his crusade against corporate corruption has begun with the trial of Frank Quattrone. Down in Virginia, a federal judge has issued yet another damaging ruling in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “twentieth hijacker,” a case that’s being handled by one of Comey’s most trusted lieutenants. And Comey’s indictment of Martha Stewart is under assault again, with a new defense motion to dismiss the obstruction-of-justice charges against the dominatrix of domesticity.
Yet Comey is cackling. He is a deeply serious man, a law-and-order Republican appointee—and, standing six feet eight inches tall, instantly intimidating. But laughter is his natural state. Comey is talking about his upcoming “career day” chat to his daughter’s first-grade class. “My wife and I have five kids, so I’ve done this many times,” he says. “I like to bring stuff to show them: fingerprints, handcuffs, stuff like that.” Suddenly, Comey is shouting, acting out his lesson to the 6-year-olds: “Tell the truth! See what can happen to you?” he yells. “Okay, now we’re all gonna perp-walk to the playground! Tommy—you be Kozlowski!”
Comey has been savaged by William Safire and lauded by Chuck Schumer; just what kind of Republican is he, anyway? This sets Comey howling again. “I must be doing something right!” he says. “In college, I was left of center, and through a gradual process I found myself more comfortable with a lot of the ideas and approaches the Republicans were using.” He voted for Carter in 1980, but in ’84, “I voted for Reagan—I’d moved from Communist to whatever I am now. I’m not even sure how to characterize myself politically. Maybe at some point, I’ll have to figure it out.”
Or maybe he’s being disingenuous. Because three hours later, Comey gets a phone call from Washington: President George W. Bush is nominating him as the No. 2 man to Attorney General John Ashcroft. On the surface, it’s an odd pairing: Comey—who cites liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as a formative influence, and who can sing along with Good Charlotte pop-punk hits—and Ashcroft, a reactionary born-again Christian who breaks into spirited renditions of biblical hymns. There’s little risk Comey will lose his sense of humor in his new job. It’s only his soul that’s up for grabs.
Prosecuting Martha Stewart, Sam Waksal, assorted Greedhead Telecom executives, and Bronx gun dealers may soon look easy to Jim Comey. He is heading to Washington to become the second-highest-ranking law-enforcement official in the United States at a time of galloping partisan rancor. Not only is the Justice Department grappling with how to prosecute alleged terrorists, but it is also pushing for an expansion of the USA Patriot Act, the controversial civil-liberties-curbing doctrine that’s the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s anti-terror legal offensive. And Ashcroft is under intense fire, with Democrats calling for the attorney general to recuse himself from the CIA Leakgate investigation.
Comey will play a major role in all those dramas, and more, which will force his closely guarded political views into the public eye. “I had no sense whether Jim was an R or a D,” says Eric Holder Jr., who worked closely with Comey when Holder was deputy attorney general to Janet Reno in the Clinton administration—and who remains a confirmed D. “He’s just a good guy. It’s only now, because he’s in this administration, that I’m assuming Jim is a Republican.”
His New York critics, however, think they see Comey’s colors clearly beneath the smiling façade. “Nothing Comey has done here suggests he’s going to act as a brake on what Ashcroft is doing,” says Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “He is a congenial person. But that can’t obscure the fact that he’s pushing a set of policies that are extremely hostile to civil liberties.”
Next to Ashcroft, though, Comey sounds like Noam Chomsky. Will he become a bigfoot? Or a loyal foot soldier? Even Comey’s friends wonder if he can withstand the forces that will soon swirl around him. “For the first time in his life,” says one, “he’s heading into a truly political environment.”
He was born in Yonkers 42 years ago, the second of four children in a middle-class Irish-American family. Comey’s father worked in corporate real estate; his mother was a homemaker and computer consultant. One Friday night in October 1977, when the family was living in Allendale, New Jersey, his parents went to a church dance and left Jim home with his younger brother, Peter. Comey, a high-school senior, was in his bedroom writing a short story for the school literary magazine when he heard a flurry of heavy footsteps and a slamming door. He went to check it out—and found Peter facedown on a bed, with a man pointing a gun at him.
For the next hour, Comey and his brother were hostages. “I thought he was going to execute us,” Comey says. Instead, the assailant eventually locked the brothers in the basement. They escaped out a window—and ran smack into the gunman on the lawn. Neighbors rushed out to help, and three more hostages were grabbed. In the chaos, the Comey boys fled into the house and called the cops. But the gunman disappeared.
Later, a man was arrested under suspicion of being a serial rapist who attacked baby-sitters in the area. But no one was ever charged for the attack on the Comeys. “At one point, I thought—I knew—that I was going to die that night,” Comey says now. “It gave me a sense of how precious and short life is. Second, it gave me a keen sense for what victims of crime feel. I know that in some sense, they never get over it. That’s helped me as a prosecutor. I survived that experience, as did my brother, and we became—we hope—healthy adults. But it stayed with me for a long time.”
Comey’s grandfather had been police commissioner in Yonkers, but Jim went to the College of William and Mary thinking he wanted to be a doctor. He majored in chemistry and religion. “Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society says it’s not enough to sit in an ivory tower and say, I believe certain things, therefore I’m among the just,” Comey says. “Particularly Christians, he believed, had an obligation to participate in the life of their community.”
After writing a senior thesis analyzing Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell—Comey emphasized their common belief in public action—he studied law at the University of Chicago. In 1987, he was hired as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District by then-boss Rudy Giuliani. Comey says he tries to emulate Giuliani’s energy and enthusiasm, but otherwise he takes pains to distance himself from the former mayor. One reporter recalls interviewing Comey in 2002, just after his arrival as U.S. Attorney. Comey slapped a copy of an old New York Magazine on the desk, with a photo of Giuliani triumphantly striding up courthouse steps. “That’s what I don’t want to look like,” Comey said. It was a slick piece of PR jujitsu: comparing and contrasting himself with Giuliani at the same time.
Comey rose to become deputy chief of the office’s criminal division but quit in 1993, three months after Mary Jo White arrived. “My wife wasn’t digging New York,” Comey says (he and Patrice Failor met as college freshmen and were married in 1987). “We wanted to live in a place where we’d both be happier raising our kids. She knew northern Virginia, because she’d grown up there and in Iowa, but we liked Richmond as a place to live.” Comey worked as a corporate lawyer at the McGuireWoods firm, but for what turned out to be a short run. He quit his lucrative partnership after defending a company against claims that its machinery caused asbestos injuries. Comey won the case, but it rattled his conscience. When he was offered an assistant U.S. Attorney’s job by Helen Fahey, a Clinton appointee for the Eastern District of Virginia, he jumped at a chance to go back to a civil-service salary and wear the prosecutor’s white hat.
Comey made his name with Project Exile. Richmond was plagued with shootings, and Comey, “along with several other people,” Fahey emphasizes, came up with the notion of federalizing illegal gun possession—that is, getting the federal courts, where sentences were stiffer, to handle the gun arrests made by Richmond police. Comey went to Eric Holder, then Reno’s deputy, for help with money and planning.
After Bush was elected in 2000—a friend remembers Comey calling on Election Night with news of the Republican candidate’s (first) Florida victory and hearing Patrice celebrating in the background—Comey was a prime contender for promotion to U.S. Attorney for Virginia’s Eastern District. But he lost out to Paul McNulty, who was close to Ashcroft.
In early 2001, FBI director Louis Freeh was frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen American servicemen. Freeh steered the case from Washington prosecutors to Comey in Richmond. Comey quickly delivered fourteen indictments—gaining the attention of President Bush. Six months after the Khobar Towers indictments, Bush nominated Comey to replace Mary Jo White.
Comey was thrilled to return to New York, and says that a trip along the Hudson brought his wife onboard. Still, leaving Richmond was difficult. In 1995, the Comeys’ infant son, Collin, died when an easily treatable bacterial infection went undetected; Collin was 9 days old. “Whenever they come back to Richmond,” says a friend, “one of the first places they go is the cemetery.”
Patrice Comey wrote an op-ed piece for the Richmond Times-Dispatch two weeks after Collin’s death, beginning her campaign to change hospital procedures so that screening for strep B would be routine. Comey backed up Patrice’s moral suasion with a lawsuit against the hospital and the doctors (the hospital paid a monetary settlement and agreed to institute new protective measures; Comey dropped the suit against the doctors).
Fixing the medical protocols didn’t salve the Comeys’ pain, or solve the larger questions. “It’s very, very hard to understand why it happened,” Comey says. “And glib explanations about certain things being God’s will are not satisfactory. It’s simply not fair to say it’s God’s will. That’s inconsistent with any notion of a caring being. What we can say, as Job said, basically, is that we almost can’t ask the question of why, but we know what our obligation is: to make some good come of this. Not to say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, it was worth it that my son died,’ or that all these people died on September 11, or that millions and millions were slaughtered in the Holocaust and in Rwanda. But simply because it is our obligation as people not to let evil hold the field. Not to let bad win.”
Comey was a compromise selection for the plum New York job. George Pataki initially pushed for his conservative counsel, James M. McGuire, but Chuck Schumer pushed back. New York’s other senator, Hillary Clinton, sat out the maneuvering because the Southern District was—and still is—investigating Bill Clinton’s pardons.
The Southern District, stretching from Wall Street to Sullivan County, has always supplied a rich diet of evildoers. “The white-collar cases probably make me more angry, simply because the people involved have so many other options,” Comey says. “A lot of people go into the drug trade because they don’t think they have other options. And because a lot of people with jobs, who don’t live, say, in that area of the Bronx, want to buy the drugs. That’s one of the great things we don’t talk about in America much—that there’s another side of the drug equation, and it’s driven by a lot of people with jobs.”
Even crusty New York defense lawyers praise Comey’s fair-mindedness. “Rudy Giuliani is one of the great self-promoters of all time,” says Gerald Shargel, a defense lawyer who has faced off against both Giuliani and Comey. “Rudy brought to that office an element of self-importance, self-promotion—overstating accomplishments, seething at any dissenters. That’s not Comey at all. Comey is a much more balanced person.”
“Jim has done a terrific job,” Mary Jo White says.
Though the juries are literally still out, or not even in yet, on Comey’s biggest cases, some aspects of his New York legacy are disquieting. There’s the bogus “confession” of Abdallah Higazy, the Egyptian student jailed after the September 11 attacks; police said a pilot’s radio had been found in Higazy’s hotel room overlooking the World Trade Center. “It’s an important example of Comey’s willingness to steamroll someone who was alleged to have engaged in terrorist activity,” says Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Comey also argued that José Padilla—accused of planning to explode a radioactive bomb and declared an enemy combatant by President Bush—had no right to a defense lawyer.
And under Comey, the Southern District—mocked by lesser jurisdictions as “the sovereign district” for its fierce hold on the glossiest cases—yielded some of its storied independence. “Washington has played a more important role in the Southern District than it did in prior administrations,” says Robert Morvillo, Martha Stewart’s defense attorney. “The signs are in the way Comey has pushed death-penalty and terrorism cases. You could attribute it to the fact that Comey has no substantial political base. Or you might attribute it to the strength of the personalities in Washington, like John Ashcroft.” It’s September 9, and the patriot Act promotional blitz pulls into its final stop. A dozen enormous American flags are draped behind the stage inside Federal Hall, where Congress adopted the Bill of Rights in 1789. Today, the star attraction is John Ashcroft. First, Comey welcomes the assembled cops, firefighters, and prosecutors, who’ve been carefully arranged for this photo op. Then Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, begins her introduction of Ashcroft by needling Comey. “The attorney general is a fierce competitor who never loses on the basketball court—even against my six-foot-eight-inch colleague,” Mauskopf says. “Good strategy, Jim.”
Ashcroft thanks Comey—“not for taking any dive in basketball, but for your great work here”—then shamelessly invokes the second anniversary of the World Trade Center attack to justify the need for enlarging the Patriot Act. Whenever Ashcroft pauses, shouts are audible from anarchists protesting outside. They’re not alone in their disapproval. Even staunch conservatives like former Georgia congressman Bob Barr are dismayed that the federal government proposes to lock up librarians who publicly discuss subpoenas of reading records, and by how intrusive Patriot Act tactics have spread into investigations having nothing to do with terrorism.
When Comey arrives in Washington next month to become interim deputy attorney general (his appointment is subject to confirmation hearings), the Patriot Act’s provisions will be among his main weapons. “Filling in this spot is a big effin’ deal. Especially on the terrorism side,” says a senior staff member on the Senate judiciary committee. Comey’s predecessor as D.A.G., Larry Thompson, directed the department’s sweeping counterterrorism initiatives. “Now that the Patriot Act powers are in place,” the staffer says, “the cast of characters—the people who are actually going to implement them—really matters. A prosecutor with these tools can ruin somebody’s life. Comey comes in with a reputation as a pretty good professional. We’ll see.”
Comey is no Beltway virgin: He’s flown to Washington regularly as a member of Thompson’s task force on corporate crime. Perhaps that experience will help him avoid getting tangled, say, in the probe of who burned the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
“Jim is a chess player,” says Eric Holder, who learned about the political land mines of the job when he was deputy attorney general during the Monica Lewinsky mess. “He’s thinking not only What’s the impact of the move I make today, what’s the impact going to be tomorrow? He’s thinking, What’s the impact going to be one month, two months, six months from now?”
Associates say Comey’s ability to calculate several moves ahead is evident in his thinking on the Zacarias Moussaoui case. On the surface, the trial appears to be a nonstop debacle for the Justice Department. It’s currently stalled by a standoff over Moussaoui’s demand to question other alleged terrorists held in American custody.
A faction in Ashcroft’s inner circle would like to end the whole dance and shift Moussaoui’s trial to a military tribunal. Comey won’t talk about the Moussaoui case while it’s active. But a colleague says that Comey sees a valuable big-picture purpose to slogging through the courts. “Jim thinks we have to have a criminal-justice response to terrorism,” the law-enforcement official says. “Because let’s say the next terrorist is caught in Hamburg. The Germans are not sending him to an American military tribunal. They’re not even sending him to a death-penalty proceeding. They will only send him to a civilian-justice proceeding. What do we do then if we haven’t resolved these issues and balanced a defendant’s rights to discovery with the country’s need to protect classified information? Do you dismiss the indictment? Do you let the guy go?”
Whether Comey, as the new guy in Ashcroft’s office, can win such strategic battles remains to be seen. What happens the first time his dispassionate lawyer’s logic collides with Ashcroft’s political needs?
“Whenever a new prosecutor started working in the U.S. Attorney’s office, Comey would tell him, “Don’t you ever say something you don’t completely believe. I’m not even talking about shades of gray. If you don’t 100 percent believe it, don’t you dare say it. That’s why being a prosecutor is so great: You don’t have to make arguments you don’t believe in.”
Now Comey will attempt to maintain his own integrity with a scandal humming, a war unraveling, terrorists plotting, and a presidential election looming. Jim Comey is on John Ashcroft’s team. We’ll soon find out how willing he is to play ball.