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For new deputy attorney general, a department under fire

WASHINGTON -- James Comey, now the second-in-command at the Justice Department, has an impressive array of terrorism and violent-crime cases under his belt. But he's perhaps best known these days as the prosecutor who indicted the diva of domesticity Martha Stewart.

Confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday as the deputy attorney general, Comey takes the reins at a Justice Department under fire for its bold antiterrorism tactics and facing questions about its investigation into the leak of a CIA officer's name.

As deputy, Comey essentially will have day-to-day control over the Justice Department and its vast empire of lawyers.

"He'll have his hands full," said Eric Holder, who was the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration. "There's a political component to this job unlike anything he's come up against yet."

Comey's role may be especially important because Attorney General John Ashcroft has been a lightening rod for a number of the administration's more controversial post-Sept. 11 initiatives.

Comey arrives with a reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor's prosecutor.

Stewart's lawyer Robert Morvillo describes him as "the kind of guy you'd like to get a beer with at the end of the day."

"He's a smart, classy guy, not a zealot like Ashcroft," said flamboyant mob lawyer Bruce Cutler, who went head-to-head with Comey in the Gambino organized-crime trial in New York.

And unlike Ashcroft, who was a Republican governor, US senator, and presidential hopeful, Comey isn't overtly political.

That could help blunt criticism from some Democrats that Ashcroft's close ties to the White House prevent the Justice Department from aggressively investigating who in the Bush administration leaked the name of a covert CIA officer in an act of apparent political retaliation.

Comey has received rave job reviews from Senator Charles M. Schumer, a New York Democrat who is the Justice Department's toughest critic on the CIA matter.

Comey outlined his views at his confirmation hearing.

"I don't care about politics. I don't care about expediency. I care about doing the right thing," he said before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Conversations with those who know Comey paint a portrait of a man who's a hard-charging Elliot Ness and an affable 6-foot-8 prankster with a good jump shot.

He's also known as a deeply committed family man. His wife, Patrice, and five kids, ages 3 through 15, packed the first row at his confirmation hearing.

Comey, 43, was born to a middle-class Irish family in Yonkers, N. Y., where his grandfather was a police commissioner.

As a teenager, he got a frightening taste of what it's like to be a crime victim when an intruder broke into his home in Allendale, N. J., while his parents were out and held his brother and him hostage at gunpoint. The captor fled and never was apprehended.

The event "gave me a keen sense for what victims of crime feel. I know that in some sense they never get over it," Comey told New York Magazine.

He attended the College of William and Mary and the University of Chicago Law School. In 1987, he was hired as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, working for Rudolph W. Giuliani, and he cut his teeth on organized crime cases, including the Gambino family.

Comey went back to Virginia in the 1990s, then returned to Manhattan in early 2002, grabbing headlines for attacking corporate crime at ImClone, WorldCom, and Adelphia.

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