Politics & Government

Ex-prosecutor Anne Tompkins flips sides in defending man at center of NC bribery case

Here’s what happened and the key players involved in the NCGOP chairman bribery and corruption charges

Chairman Robin Hayes and major campaign donor Greg Lindberg are at the center for this case. it all started when Mike Causey reported to officials issues with campaign contributions.
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Chairman Robin Hayes and major campaign donor Greg Lindberg are at the center for this case. it all started when Mike Causey reported to officials issues with campaign contributions.

Over her career, attorney Anne Tompkins has helped prosecute dozens of high-profile people including a Charlotte mayor, a serial killer, a former CIA director and even Saddam Hussein.

But now the former U.S. attorney finds herself on the other side, defending the man at the center of one of North Carolina’s biggest public-corruption cases.

Tompkins, 56, represents Durham billionaire Greg Lindberg who, along with state Republican Chairman Robin Hayes and two associates, was indicted this month on charges of conspiring to bribe the state’s top insurance regulator with campaign contributions. Lindberg has become one of North Carolina’s biggest campaign contributors, giving millions to Republicans and Democrats.

Tompkins has maintained her client’s innocence. “We look forward to demonstrating this when we get our day in court,” she said in a statement following the indictments.

Tompkins has her work cut out.

Federal prosecutors have a high rate of success in public-corruption cases. Nearly nine out of 10 such cases have resulted in convictions over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Tompkins should know. She helped direct a four-year corruption probe of former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon that ended in 2014 when he pleaded guilty to accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents. Sentenced to 44 months in prison, he was released in 2016 after serving half that time.

Since stepping down as U.S. attorney in 2015, Tompkins has specialized in white-collar defense at the firm, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. She declined to comment for this story.

But one Charlotte defense attorney said it’s not always easy to flip sides in the courtroom.

“The challenge for former prosecutors who become defense attorneys is it’s a completely different mindset,” said Charlotte attorney Jim Cooney. “In order to defend your client you have to test everything a prosecutor says or does. That can sometimes be hard for former prosecutors because they’re inclined to believe that, if a prosecutor says it, it must be correct.”

Other lawyers say her background as a prosecutor will help Tompkins defend her client.

“She’s even better off having been both,” said Bart Menser, a former state prosecutor who worked with Tompkins at the Mecklenburg DA’s office. Her experience, he added, helps her “really get into the mind of the prosecution.”

“What does a prosecutor need? How are they going to play their cards?” Menser said. “You’ve got a much better feel if you’ve been on the other side.”

Prosecuting Saddam

Born in Virginia, Tompkins grew up in Charlotte and graduated from West Charlotte High and UNC Charlotte. While working as a budget analyst for the city of Charlotte, she earned a master’s in public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill. She returned to Chapel Hill for law school and while there, interned for then Mecklenburg County District Attorney Peter Gilchrist. She made such an impression that when she graduated in 1992 he hired her.

“We just liked her,” Gilchrist recalled. “She was impressive even as a wet-behind-the-ears assistant DA.”

At the DA’s office, Tompkins moved up from traffic cases to murders. In 1997, she helped put Henry Louis Wallace on death row for the murders of nine women. Gilchrist made her a supervisor. “She could train young lawyers, she could try the toughest cases,” he said. “Her real gift is dealing with people.”

In 2000, Tompkins joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as an assistant prosecutor. Four years later, she was sent to Iraq to help investigate Saddam Hussein’s war crimes. She spent eight months on a team of American lawyers who advised the tribunal that would prosecute the former dictator. She was a key investigator into the 1982 massacre that led to his execution.

Tompkins returned to private practice with Alston & Bird in Charlotte, where she handled white-collar criminal defense until 2010, when President Barack Obama named her U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Western District. She served until stepping down in 2015, in plenty of time for a new president to appoint his own prosecutor, she said at the time.

One of the nation’s few openly gay or lesbian federal prosecutors, Tompkins married her partner in 2014.

Friends describe her as a hard worker who’s competitive and intense but affable and informal. She sometimes walked around her office barefoot. She’s not shy about dropping the occasional f-bomb.

“You don’t necessarily want to try something against Anne because the jurors are going to like her,” said Menser. “Personality goes a long way.”

Tough cases

Despite their high rate of convictions, public-corruption cases aren’t a slam dunk for prosecutors. Some notable cases have ended with the defendant going free.

“The high-profile cases seem to be sometimes the ones that are toughest,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. For example:

In 2012, the six-week corruption trial of former U.S. senator — and presidential candidate — John Edwards of North Carolina ended when a jury could not reach a verdict on five charges. He was acquitted on a sixth.

In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’d been accused of doing favors for a man who’d given him and his family more than $175,000 in gifts and loans. In so doing, the court set new standards for such prosecutions that lawyers said make it harder to successfully prosecute corruption.

A year later, a federal appeals court in New York cited the high court’s new standards in overturning the corruption conviction of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Former federal prosecutor Richard Myers, now a UNC law professor, said it can be hard for courts to determine quid pro quos. Public officials are expected to be responsive to citizens, he said. And money in the form of campaign contributions is a fact of life in politics.

“Public-corruption cases are hard to prosecute successfully,” Myers said. “In politics we expect (campaign) money and private conversations, we don’t expect bribery. . . . And some cases fall close to one side of that line or the other.”

‘A fighter’

Admirers say Tompkins is as well-equipped to defend corruption cases as to prosecute them.

“They’re hard cases to investigate, they’re hard cases to prosecute and they’re hard cases to defend,” said Ripley Rand, a former U.S. attorney. “(Anne) is one of those people who is able to understand large data sets of information and then distill it down to important things and communicate it to other people in an easy to understand, coherent form.”

Cooney, the defense lawyer, said the vast majority of such cases get settled not by a jury but in a plea agreement hammered out by both sides, like the one Tompkins engineered with former CIA Director David Petraeus in 2015. He’d pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information during an affair with Charlottean Paula Broadwell.

For such outcomes, Cooney said, Tompkins has the experience she needs.

“She is instinctively a fighter and that always bodes well for her clients,” he said, “but she also has the good judgment to know when not to fight. And that’s when being a prosecutor actually helps her.”