One of the Good Guys: Part I 

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

Baron Otto von Bressensdorf. Joel Harris and Lee Young. The Poison Clan drug gang. The NationsBank murderer.

They're the biggest and baddest scandals and scoundrels in recent Richmond history, but they have more in common than their notoriety. Each was taken down by Jim Comey's relentless team of feds.

In the years since September 1996 when Eastern District of Virginia U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey hired Comey to head the U.S. attorney's Richmond branch, it has become one of the busiest and most innovative federal prosecutors' offices in the nation.

The office's Project Exile initiative aimed at getting handguns off the streets is such an unqualified success it is being emulated from California to New York, and has been a subject for national media from The New York Times and USA Today to "60 Minutes" and "ABC World News Tonight." Police Chief Jerry Oliver even testified to its effectiveness before Congress.

Comey and his prosecutors have also taken down high-profile politicos and public figures like Harris and Young.

Ninety percent of those indicted by Comey's office plead guilty rather than go to trial, he estimates. Of those who go to trial, about 98 percent are found guilty of some crime.

Those numbers aren't that unusual for a federal prosecutor's office, but here's what is: Comey and his team of just 12 criminal-justice prosecutors brought 414 indictments against defendants last year.

By contrast, Comey points out, his old office, the Southern District of New York, with 160 prosecutors brought about 1,100 indictments in the same time period.

And in Richmond, while more than 100 cases were handgun violations under Project Exile, others were the results of complex investigations, like the one that yielded four felony convictions against Richmond's former mayor, the Rev. Leonidas Young.

"There's no busier U.S. Attorney's branch office in the country," Comey says. "People assume we've got the back-office support McGuire, Woods [Battle & Boothe] has, but we don't. With the quantity and quality of work turned out here, people imagine there's a much bigger iceberg below the water when there really isn't."

Comey attributes it to his "hard-working, gutsy prosecutors" who, in pursuit of justice, often eat lunch at their desks and work past midnight and on weekends. But those who work with the U.S. Attorney's Office also credit Comey and Fahey's combined leadership.

"Clearly, this is the most activist U.S. Attorney's office I've ever been involved with," says Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver, who has worked at police departments throughout the country.

"This is not a sit-back-and-bring-cases-to-us type of U.S. Attorney's office. This is a we're-leaning-in-the-wind-with-you-and-any-way-we-can-help-we-will U.S. Attorney's Office," says Oliver, "and I really appreciate that as police chief. Pardon my French, but when I'm up to my ass in alligators, it's good to have someone in the pond with you. Other people want to stand on the side and give you advice, but Jim Comey gets into the pond with you."

Together, Comey and Fahey have built a hand-picked team of diversely experienced attorneys who would be snapped up by private law firms. There are Yale Law grads, a former criminal-division chief from Atlanta, attorneys with 15 to 20 years of experience. One recently departed member of the team was the top of his class at Stanford.

"We have people in this office who could be making two and three times what they make here," Fahey says. "They do this job because they're dedicated to the community and dedicated to making a difference."

Comey concurs: "We really feel we're in a battle against the bad guys, and we're the good guys, and it's pretty great to get paid to be a good guy."

Comey himself has turned his back on high-paying partnerships with some of the biggest law firms in Virginia and New York to take on the bad guys.

Born to an Irish Catholic family in Yonkers, N.Y., Comey, 38, was the second oldest of four children. His sister is a banker with Chase Manhattan. One of his brothers is an architect, the other is a brain surgeon.

His father was a real-estate executive for an aerospace company, but law enforcement is in Comey's genes. His grandfather was police commissioner in Yonkers. On the wall of Comey's office hangs a framed faded photo of his grandfather escorting a suspect to the hoosegow after a shootout with police back in 1929.

The first thing one notices about Comey is his height. A skinny 6-foot-8, he towers over courtrooms like a flagpole.

A father of four, he's a Sunday school teacher and coaches his daughter's third-grade basketball team. He talks passionately about taking down the bad guys and affectionately calls his team of prosecutors "my troops," but he's no strait-laced Eliot Ness.

Actually, for a place with a mandatory weapons screening, handbag check and metal detector in the reception area, the Richmond branch of the U.S. Attorney's Office is a surprisingly relaxed place to work.

Outgoing and good-humored, Comey is known as a bit of a practical joker around the office. He does a killer imitation of the German con man and faux Baron Otto von Bressensdorf, mocking the Baron's pitch about "ris-ink from the smok-ink crater of Hamburg."

Comey's employees laugh recalling the time he acquired by methods unknown the number of a pager lent to a prosecutor who was an expectant father. While another man paged the nerve-wracked soon-to-be-dad with his wife's number, Comey tied up his phone line.

Comey, who graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1982 with degrees in religion and chemistry, earned his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1985. He clerked for a federal judge in Manhattan after law school, then took a job for a major New York City law firm.

Though he was on the fast track to making partner, it was just a temporary job to Comey. Other lawyers told him he was crazy, but while working in the federal courthouse, Comey had gotten a glimpse of what he wanted to be: a prosecutor working organized crime cases.

He worked just long enough in private practice to get the required experience. He was hired by a new U.S. attorney fast gaining a reputation as a trendsetter, Rudolph Giuliani, now mayor of New York. Among Comey's co-prosecutors was future FBI Director Louis Freeh. At the time, Comey, then 26, was the youngest federal prosecutor in the office.

Under Giuliani, Comey says, he picked up a can-do attitude and learned how to be the kind of boss who enables his employees to put their best ideas into action.

In a tough district where the average federal prosecutor lasts only three years, Comey stayed six years, working his way up to deputy chief of the criminal division there. While there he was regional coordinator for Operation Triggerlock, a national handgun-control program that served as a precursor to Project Exile.

"The now-Mayor and then-U.S. attorney thought he had a star in the rising," says Dennison Young, chief counsel to the mayor of New York. Young was Comey's boss and Giuliani's number-two man in the United States Attorney's Office in New York.

"I think [Comey's] success was probably predictable given how fine an assistant U.S. attorney he was in New York," Young says. "He was always anxious to take on more work and see if there was any way he could take the cases he was working on and make them benefit society in some broader way. He was smart and he was assertive and he played a significant role in some of the major cases that were prosecuted here in the late '80s and early '90s."

While in New York, Comey prosecuted everything from terrorism and narcotics trafficking to fraud and violent crimes and arms exports. He chased multimillionaire commodities mogul March Rich around the world from Moscow to Spain to Switzerland, where Rich is still living in exile as a fugitive from American justice on charges of tax evasion and defying an embargo on buying oil from Iran during the hostage crisis.

But Comey cut his teeth on organized crime, collaring guys with names like "Joey Diamonds." The culmination of his career in New York was the prosecution of Gotti-crime-family mobsters Joseph and John Gambino. The walls in his office are decorated with trophies from his wars with the Mafia, from an organizational chart of the Gotti lieutenants to a courtroom sketch of Comey questioning mob turncoat Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano on the witness stand.

"I received threats but not from the mob," Comey recalls. "Mob guys, particularly the guys at the higher level I was prosecuting, they're a bunch of thugs, but they operate under what they think is a code of honor. They don't operate against law enforcement because they know it's not good for business."

There are enlarged mob surveillance photos and former courtroom exhibits sitting on bookshelves around Comey's office. A group of dicey-looking guys in one picture had their lawyer protest the introduction of the photo into evidence on grounds that it would prejudice the jury because the accused mobsters looked "too sinister."

Comey's response? "Judge, it's a picture."

Then there's the stolen car being driven into a truck, where it would be shipped overseas. Comey had agents confiscate the stolen cars in one shipment and replace the cars with Polaroids of the cars. When the shipment arrived, the enraged crime lords started a war, thinking the gang across the ocean was playing games with them.

Continue to Part II

Latest in Miscellany

Connect with Style Weekly

Copyright © 2023 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation