The most powerful prosecutor in Charlotte draws clear lines between herself and her authority.
U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins says she is not her job title. Any power she holds comes directly from her office, and power takes on meaning solely based on how it is used.
Tompkins said that philosophy has kept her from taking herself too seriously. It has also helped her stick to a career-long pledge to treat everyone involved in a court case with respect.
Even Patrick Cannon.
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In March, after Cannon became the first mayor in Charlotte history to be arrested on public corruption charges, Tompkins and the FBI did not force him to make a so-called “perp walk” into the federal courthouse. Instead, they tried to keep his arrest secret and allowed Cannon to arrive without handcuffs. When someone leaked word to a TV station, which filmed Cannon as he was leaving court, Tompkins was furious.
“It’s not about embarrassment,” she told the Observer in a recent interview. “It’s about justice.”
Yet Cannon clearly trampled on the prosecutor’s belief in the value of public service. After Cannon pleaded guilty in June to a federal corruption charge, the 5-foot-1 Tompkins, standing on two strategically hidden packs of copy paper so she could look out from an oversized podium, spoke in collective outrage.
Cannon, she said, “betrayed all of us … compromised the integrity of our local government” and wounded the citizens’ trust in “ our elected officials.”
Asked later about her statements, Tompkins shrugged.
“I was speaking as a voice for the people in this community,” she said. “That’s what we do in this department.”
Few, if any, have done it to the same degree as Anne Tompkins.
Appointed to her post in 2010, the Democrat has built on her office’s record of taking on high-profile cases. She also added a version of her hometown’s penchant for community service and pitching in.
During the financial crisis, Tompkins said she pushed to run any investigations of local banks, developers and Realtors out of Charlotte rather than Washington, D.C.
Last August, her office sued Charlotte-based Bank of America, charging that it defrauded investors out of millions of dollars by concealing information about troubled securities.
And about three months ago, after a four-year investigation handled by the FBI, Tompkins and her prosecutors, Cannon was arrested for taking more than $50,000 in bribes to influence city operations. He is awaiting sentencing. The investigation continues.
During those cases and dozens of others, Tompkins has worked to establish ties to people and causes throughout Western North Carolina. None of it, she said, is for show.
“I think it’s fair to say that she is out in the community far more than any of her predecessors,” said Noell Tin, a prominent Charlotte attorney who defended his first criminal case against Tompkins. “She has been very active in public appearances, on a number of topics and at different kinds of forums, and it’s an extension of her roots here and her personality.”
Tompkins, 51, has put her office, face and personal time behind local initiatives involving bullying, human trafficking, domestic abuse, race relations and date violence. “Engage!” – an effort launched by her office to curb school violence – has been taken over by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Its fifth summit in March drew students from across the county, city leaders and members of the Carolina Panthers.
Characteristically, Tompkins also was there.
She credits the new emphasis on public involvement to her bosses in Washington. But friends and associates said the change puts Tompkins in her instinctive role of meeting people and building trust.
Every job boils down to a human common denominator, she said. Instead of showing up for photo ops, Tompkins prefers to start relationships. “Sometimes people aren’t expecting that. They think I’m here for a drive-by or fly-over,” she said.
“It’s the same basic thing: There has to be credibility whether it’s a second-grader or a CEO. Part of that is sustaining a relationship over time. That’s not hard for me because I mean it. I don’t wake up and say, ‘Oh no, I have to be that person who I was yesterday.’ That’s just who I am.”
In 2011, on a day when she met with groups throughout the city, Tompkins appeared at Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte to discuss bullying, hate crimes and civil rights issues as part of the nationwide “It Gets Better” project.
“Being different is good,” she told the students, parents and school officials on hand. “It makes life better. It makes life special.”
Tompkins didn’t stop there.
“I am a gay woman,” she said to an audience that included several gay and lesbian students, “and I am living proof it does get better.”
The room erupted. Tompkins said she felt “like a rock star.”
Damara Garcia-Garcia, who was a student at Northwest at the time, said the prosecutor became something more valuable: an adult speaker who shared something far more personal than the normal cliches.
“Of course we cheered her,” Garcia-Garcia said. “What she said made her more credible. … The fact that she grew up in Charlotte gave us more of a sense that ‘I can trust her,’ that she represents us – that she can be a voice that we now don’t have.”
Tompkins, who works hard to keep her private life private, said she shared her sexual orientation “because it felt right.”
“When the kids responded the way they did, it helped me know that this was something that I needed to do. When there was all that sustained noise, I knew, ‘I have hit a nerve. This is a spot, a space, I need to fill for these students.’ ”
A relationship began. Months later, Tompkins all but invited herself back and stayed the day, going classroom to classroom. When Don Nagel, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Northwest, won a grant to create an outdoor classroom and garden, Tompkins insisted that she and her partner, a landscape architect, be allowed to help.
“She didn’t just make the offer, she showed up,” Nagel said. “She wants a relationship with this school on so many levels. To meet people like that in government, it’s awe-inspiring.”
Power in action
Tompkins believes one of the most important verbs in the English language is “meander,” and that life is best led in circles, for the experiences and people brought in.
She began her legal career in 1992 trying cases at the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office, where she helped send serial killer Henry Wallace to death row. She later chose to run the office’s department handling smaller crimes because it served as the portal to the court system for so many.
As an assistant U.S. attorney in 2004, Tompkins spent eight months as a special war crimes prosecutor in Iraq. There, she was one of the key investigators into a 1982 small-town massacre, the case that led to the execution of Saddam Hussein.
During her stay, she dodged bullets and flinched through the night at the sound of enemy mortar fire. She took the assignment, she said, on the hope that she “could help give a voice to the Iraqi people that they didn’t have for 30 years.”
She calls the experience one of the most important of her life and said it’s hard to watch the apparent disintegration the country is undergoing now.
Former boss Peter Gilchrist, who retired as district attorney in 2010, said Tompkins’ feel for law and people led him and top assistant Bart Menser to begin recruiting her for their staff shortly after she started an summer internship 25 years ago.
When she left the department in 1997 to start a private practice with former law school classmate Chris Fialko, Gilchrist lured her back after six months.
Staying circular, Tompkins made a counterclockwise career move. Most prosecutors want to get out of handling misdemeanor cases. She chose to dive back in. Not only would Tompkins help set the impression the office would make on thousands of people each year, she would also train young lawyers.
“I used to tell my folks, ‘I want you to treat people in this case like you’re treating my mother. Not your mother. My mother, and my mother is a nice person.’ ”
Anne O’Brien Tompkins died last May. Her obituary says she was a good listener. She and husband Mikel had five children, with Anne being the fourth.
Tompkins said that, as a child, she served as a peacemaker and problem-solver in what she describes as a close, competitive and occasionally combustible household. She said she learned early on that “it’s important to be heard.”
“Anne has always been willing to listen,” said Claire Rauscher, the former head of the federal public defenders’ office and now a corporate attorney in Charlotte. “She was very much, ‘We do the work we do. It’s not us versus them.’ It’s very easy to look at the opposing side as your enemy. Anne never did that.”
Tompkins has heard the continuing criticism that the Justice Department, including her office, has let the real villains of the financial collapse slip by.
She said she understands public frustration “when powerful figures seem to be getting away with something,” but adds a caveat.
“When something bad happens, there is not always proof of criminal intent,” she said. “That’s the part of dealing with the fallout of this financial crisis that people don’t always realize.”
She dismisses the notion that her personal and professional ties across the city compromise her job as a prosecutor in any way.
“We look hard at fraud, and we bring the cases we can bring,” she said. “The department has a clear mission. You move in that direction. I’m not going to not do something because I’m from Charlotte.”
That, she said, would let too many people down.
“I really do feel a responsibility to the victims, the victims’ families, this city, the community. There is a weight that you carry on your shoulders that is part of the job,” she said. “They come to court looking for justice, and you’re the person helping them get there.”
Public vs. private
Last year, Tompkins and her partner, J’Nell Bryson, quietly went out of state to be married. She told a few friends afterward.
Tompkins routinely deflects questions about her home life and family out of concerns for the privacy and safety of loved ones who have not chosen highly visible public jobs like hers.
As one of the country’s few openly gay or lesbian federal prosecutors, she finds herself in the odd position of living in a state that doesn’t recognize her marriage while working for a boss – the federal government – that does.
As a political appointee, Tompkins could be looking for work as soon as the next presidential election. If the federal government were to bring her to Washington, she said she would miss living in the place where she is from.
“I am connected to this city,” she said. “I see connections in this city because I want this to be the best place it can, and there are a lot of people helping to do that. I like being part of something bigger than me. Making those connections – that’s what I love, and I think you do that by knowing this place.”