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One of the Good Guys: Part II

Jim Comey and the Richmond U.S. Attorney's Office take on the baddest of the bad guys.


Comey left New York to take a job at McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe in 1993, becoming a partner in 1995. During his time at McGuire, Woods, he spent a summer working as a deputy special counsel for the U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Whitewater and Related Matters.

Primarily investigating the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster, Comey worked closely with David Kendall, the president's lawyer, and met many of the Clinton scandal players, including Linda Tripp, whom he watched being deposed in 1995 about the belated discovery of Foster's suicide note and who removed which files from Foster's office shortly after his death. However, the tragic loss of Comey's 9-day-old son, Colin, from a strep infection prompted Comey to resign his post at the Senate.

"It was a difficult time," he says simply. After the death of their child, his wife testified before the General Assembly and crusaded throughout the country for mandatory strep-testing for expectant mothers. Today, the testing is done throughout Richmond, largely thanks to her work.

Comey stayed at McGuire, Woods just three years before taking the job in the Richmond U.S. Attorney's office. He's not in the national spotlight much anymore and it doesn't bother him.

His choice to become a federal prosecutor again is "the smartest thing I ever did except marry my wife," Comey says enthusiastically. "I love my job. As a fed in Richmond, you can make more of a difference than in a place like New York City, a place so big that sometimes it can feel like spitting in the ocean. Here, a hard-working group of people can really have an impact."

Arguably, Project Exile is one of the areas where Comey has had the biggest impact. Coordinated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen W. Miller, Exile has been credited with lowering Richmond's homicide rate. In its first two years, it has resulted in 475 illegal guns being taken off the street, 404 indictments and an 86 percent conviction rate.

Local officials are glad to abdicate prosecution to the feds. In federal courts, bond is less likely to be made available, conviction rates are higher, sentences are longer, and felons serve their sentences in federal prisons in far-off states, a deterrent to be sure.

"In Cleveland, Chicago or New York, you roll up on a street corner after watching a drug sale go down, and you either find no gun or a gun. Roll up on some guys in Richmond and you find seven guns," Comey says of the city's high weapon-carry rates.

Before Exile, he says, "criminals in Richmond would put on their shoes, socks, belt and guns with about the same amount of reflection."

What's especially innovative about Exile, Comey says, is the way it gets the message across. A high-profile ad campaign by The Martin Agency, funded by contributions from private business and the National Rifle Association, hammers home the warning in television ads, billboards and even on a city bus.

One television ad is completely silent with just text, "An illegal gun can get you five years in federal prison." It's directed at drug users. Most of the time when police raid crack houses, the TV is blaring, Comey says. This ad forces them to look at the TV to see why it's silent.

Not everyone has been glowing about Exile, however. Defense attorney David Baugh, a former assistant U.S. attorney himself, describes Comey as a "sincere zealot." Baugh unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of Exile and criticizes the federal initiative as discriminatory against blacks. (Most Exile defendants are black, most city juries are black, and most federal juries are white.)

In a rare joint statement, all three sitting federal judges in Richmond publicly criticized Exile earlier this year as a "substantial federal incursion into a sovereign state's area of authority," though they ruled it was lawful and not discriminatory.

Comey has no apologies: "Our federal judges have complained we're reaching too much on the gun side. I understand the philosophical point, but a philosophical point isn't that important when 140 people are getting killed in your city a year. The intricacies of the federalism argument are fine, but not when you're in the middle of a war zone."

As for whether Exile is discriminatory, Comey says it's not, because those who have the most to benefit from it are blacks, who are generally the victims of gun violence in Richmond.

For Comey, the greatest part of being a federal prosecutor is the nature of the job. It's proactive, not reactive. Unlike a local prosecutor who must take every case he or she is handed, and usually only after the investigation into the crime is concluded, federal prosecutors pick and choose the cases they want. What's more, they're part of the investigation from the beginning.

As long as there's a federal component to the case, Comey and his prosecutors can take it, and with revised federal drug-crime laws, a lot of crime can be prosecuted federally. They advise FBI agents and local police, and they can compel the testimony of witnesses in secret federal grand juries.

By the time, they're ready to indict, they've usually compiled an airtight case. Comey calls it "building the brick house," and he says, "when we come for you, the brick house is fairly well built."

That, combined with what some critics call "Draconian" sentencing guidelines imposed by Congress, leads to a lot of plea bargains. It can be the difference between five years in prison and life for those who fight the charges against them.

"My experience with the U.S. Attorney's office is generally when they come to trial, they have their ducks in a row and their evidence in order, and they pretty much pound you into submission," says defense attorney Jeffrey Everhart. "If you don't plea, they'll convict you."

Everhart says the feds have always been fair and willing to give some defendants a break, especially if they can provide evidence on other crimes. He remembers one case when a client was present when narcotics arrived in the mail. The client said he had no knowledge, but the federal prosecutors contended he did. The client agreed to a lie-detector test and passed. The feds dismissed the charges.

However, Baugh says it's precisely that sort of power that U.S. attorneys have that make them dangerously powerful and open to abuses. He recalls the case of a local gun-shop owner whose wife he represented.

The gun dealer, his wife and son were all charged with numerous gun felonies, Baugh recalls. The U.S. Attorney's Office told the gun dealer if he pleaded guilty to a felony, felony charges would be dropped against his wife and son. The gun dealer pleaded guilty to save his wife and son but believed federal prosecutors coerced him into forfeiting his right to a trial. He shot himself in the heart over it, Baugh says.

"Since the Reagan administration and since the advent of sentencing guidelines, U.S. Attorney's offices have gotten tremendously powerful and actually kind of scary," Baugh says.

Replying to Baugh's remarks, Comey says, "Federal prosecutors do have enormous power ... but in my experience, federal prosecutors exercise their power very, very responsibly.

"... Our client is justice. The most important thing we can do is make sure the right thing is done and whether that involves clearing someone who has been accused or severely punishing someone who has been accused and is guilty, that's our job."

Criticisms aside, however, Comey is widely respected inside and outside of his office, and his attorneys speak glowingly and admiringly of him.

His "troops" are a carefully assembled team, each with their own area of expertise. Mentioning just a few, there are Bob Trono, the former head of the multijursidictional grand jury and one of the key prosecutors in the Harris and Young case; John Davis, former chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta; Nicholas S. "Nick" Altimari, who specializes in bank robberies and who helped build the case against the NationsBank robbers; and Michael C. Wallace, who successfully built complicated drug-money laundering cases against Frick Auto and West Broad Auto Haus.

Despite different professional backgrounds, each of Comey's troops has one thing in common: a talent for building the brick wall that encloses the bad guys.

Take Assistant U.S. Attorney David Novak, for example. Comey calls him "The Great Novak." He's assigned to the city's Cold Homicide Task Force, the "cold squad" for short. He made the case against the Poison Clan gang, an investigation that solved multiple drug murders and resulted in 40 convictions throughout the United States.

When he goes to court, Novak pulls a luggage cart behind him, with neatly alphabetized files with everything one could want to know about a defendant. Comey and others say Novak is a master at getting a defendant to plead guilty. His favorite phrase is "I will annihilate you," and he means it.

By the time he sits down with any defendants, he knows everything about them, who their friends are, where they hang out, who their girlfriend is, what kind of car they drive, what they do all day. It's disconcerting. It also mows down lies like a TEC-9.

As a federal prosecutor in Texas, Novak prosecuted one of the biggest money-laundering cases in history, but when you ask what's he really proud of, it's the smaller cases, the ones he says bring justice and make Richmond a better place to live in.

He talks earnestly about the slaying of Frank Morton. A Marine who served in Desert Storm, Morton was murdered by a drug dealer who mistakenly believed Morton to be a rival dealer invading his turf.

The murder was unsolved for five years until it came to the Cold Homicide Task Force's attention through Poison Clan informants. Faced with the case Novak built against him, Craig "Voop" Murphy pleaded guilty rather than stand trial.

"The sense of satisfaction you get calling a mother and a father up saying, 'You've waited five long years for the murderer of your son to be brought to justice and I'm calling to tell you he's going to plead tomorrow,' that's a pretty good feeling," Novak says with a grim smile.

Comey says of his employee: "Novak has what some would call a corny view of the world — we are the good guys and there are bad guys, and we're going to get them and we're not going to stop until we get them. That's corny, but that's also refreshing.

"There's that great line in 'The Untouchables' where Kevin Costner says, 'Let's go do some good,' and that's the way a guy like Novak lives his career."

The same could also be said of Jim

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