Crime & Courts

U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins to leave office in March

Attorney General Eric Holder said U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins “has served as an inspiring example to public servants throughout the country – including me.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins “has served as an inspiring example to public servants throughout the country – including me.”

U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins, who sent Charlotte’s mayor to prison and helped carve out a multibillion-dollar settlement with Bank of America over mortgage fraud, announced Monday that she is leaving office.

She will step down in two weeks. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Rose will take over the responsibility of running the office. It remained unclear Monday what Tompkins will do next.

“As United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, Anne Tompkins has pursued the cause of justice with passion, with integrity, and with results,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in a statement. “In her outstanding work on matters involving health care and financial fraud, she helped safeguard the well-being of the American people and bring wrong-doers to justice.”

Tompkins, 52, has served as the top federal prosecutor in Mecklenburg and 31 other western North Carolina counties since 2010.

During that time, she not only followed the office’s penchant for taking on high-profile cases, she also gave it a far more public face.

As part of her job, Tompkins threw herself into such issues as bullying and human trafficking. She spoke at events across her district. When no cameras were around, she showed up to volunteer at schools and other sites to pitch in.

Starting in 2010, Tompkins helped direct a four-year corruption investigation of Patrick Cannon, a fellow Democrat. Cannon was on the City Council when the investigation began and was elected mayor just five months before his arrest last March. He pleaded guilty to accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents.

In November, Cannon became Charlotte’s first mayor ever sent to prison. He is currently serving a 44-month sentence.

Tompkins’ office also brought wide-ranging cases against gangs, notably the United Blood Nation; human trafficking and medical fraud. “Operation Wax House,” a $75 million racketeering case based on homebuying and investment fraud in south Charlotte and Union County, netted 89 convictions or guilty pleas. More than 50 of them came on Tompkins’ watch.

In the midst of the fallout from the recession, Tompkins persuaded her bosses in Washington to keep the investigation of any local banks in her office. Last August, Bank of America and the government announced a $16.65 billion settlement in a mortgage fraud case, in which Tompkins’ office played a key role.

Despite the damage to the economy in Charlotte and across the country, no top banking officials were ever prosecuted. In an interview last summer, Tompkins said she understood public frustration with the lack of prosecutions “when powerful figures seem to be getting away with something.” But she said her office and her longtime ties to the city had not led her to go easy on anyone.

“We look hard at fraud, and we bring the cases we can bring,” she said. “I’m not going to not do something because I’m from Charlotte.”

Tompkins was born in rural Virginia and spent her earliest years in small-town Pennsylvania. Her family moved to Charlotte in time for her to attend Piedmont Middle School and West Charlotte High. She graduated from UNC Charlotte, and after a stint as a budget analyst for the city of Charlotte, switched to law and earned her degree at UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 1992, she began her law career as a prosecutor in the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office. During her time there, she started with traffic cases and progressed to trying murders. She helped put Charlotte serial killer Henry Wallace on death row in 1997.

In 2000, she joined the U.S. attorney’s office as a prosecutor. Four years later, she was dispatched to Iraq to help investigate war crimes committed by Saddam Hussein, including the 1982 small-town massacre that played a significant role in persuading an Iraqi jury to sentence the dictator to death.

Tompkins is one of a very few openly gay or lesbian U.S. attorneys in the country. In 2013, she quietly slipped away with partner J’Nell Bryant for an out-of-state wedding.

Typically protective of her private life, Tompkins brought a roomful of students to their feet during a 2011 rally at Northwest School of the Arts on bullying, hate crimes and personal rights – all part of the nationwide “It Gets Better” project.

“I am a gay woman, and I am living proof that it does get better,” she told the students.

Looking back, Tompkins said she shared her private side with the students “because it felt right.”

“When the kids responded the way they did, it helped me know that this was something I needed to do. When there was all this sustained noise, I knew ... this is a spot, a space, I need to fill.”

Tompkins was appointed to her position by President Barack Obama and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2010.

As a political appointee, it’s customary for federal prosecutors to leave office before a new president comes in. That is what is happening now, Tompkins said Monday.

Her pending departure comes two years ahead of the next presidency. Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, says the process of finding Tompkins’ replacement can take months. That makes it likely that Rose, a veteran career prosecutor, will run the office for the foreseeable future, until the next administration can nominate someone else, Tobias said.

Holder, who is also leaving office this year, said Tompkins kept her priorities humane.

“Anne has never lost sight of the most vulnerable in her own community,” the attorney general said. “Through her work at all levels, she has served as an inspiring example to public servants throughout the country – including me. And while I will miss her distinguished leadership and wise counsel, I look forward to all that she will achieve in the next stage of her already remarkable career.”

Before she was appointed U.S. attorney, Tompkins spent five years as a trial lawyer with the Charlotte firm of Alston & Bird. Tompkins did not respond to a question on what she plans to do next, but she is expected to stay in Charlotte.

“I am connected to this city,” she said last year. “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.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095