Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey Jr., who has played a central role in the Bush administration's prosecution of terrorism and corporate fraud cases, announced yesterday that he was leaving his post later this year to practice law in the private sector.
Comey, 44, was confirmed as the Justice Department's second-in-command in December 2003 and previously served as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.
The Yonkers, N.Y., native said in a statement that he had been "privileged to serve this great department," which he called an extraordinary institution with an enormously important mission."
"I will miss it, and my colleagues here, very much," he said.
Comey said he had discussed his plans ahead of time with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, and notified the attorney general and President Bush of his plans to resign in a letter yesterday.
Comey earned frequent praise from colleagues, and even some foes, as a tough but fair prosecutor, and over the last four years he has had a hand in many of the most important and difficult prosecutions tackled by the Justice Department.
A Justice Department official, who declined to be identified discussing internal issues, said that Gonzales and Comey got along "extremely well" and that Comey's departure was purely for personal and family reasons.
In a Justice Department news release, Gonzales is quoted as noting "the sacrifices made by Jim's wife, Patrice, and their five children during the long period of Jim's government service."
"Jim has been a leader in combating crime and defending America against terrorism," Gonzales said.
" . . . His departure is a great loss for the Department of Justice."
As is common for those in his position, Comey has largely stayed behind the scenes under both Gonzales and his predecessor as attorney general, John D. Ashcroft, although he did lead an announcement earlier this month of indictments of three alleged British terrorists.
Comey was also the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York when charges were brought against Martha Stewart and other prominent corporate defendants, and served as head of the department's Corporate Fraud Task Force after taking the deputy's job.
Comey said last year that the government's prosecution of corporate scandals has helped deter crime, arguing that " 'fear' is another way of saying 'deterrence.' "
Comey came under fire from defense attorneys and some legal experts for his role in releasing an unusually detailed seven-page summary of the government's accusations against Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen held as an "enemy combatant" without access to a lawyer.
Critics charged that the release in June 2004 was an attempt to sway the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a ruling on the case several weeks later.
Earlier in his career, Comey led the prosecution of John Gambino in New York.
He also took over the investigation of the deadly Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, after officials at main Justice grew unhappy with the progress of the case when it was handled by the U.S. attorney's office in the District.
One of Comey's most significant legacies, according to many law enforcement officials, may be his role in pushing for aggressive prosecution of firearms violations while heading the Justice Department's office in Richmond.
That program served as a model for a nationwide campaign later launched by Ashcroft.