Almost 25 years after he graduated from Athens Academy, alumnus Peter Leary has been named Acting U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, which covers Oconee and 69 other counties and cities, including Athens, Macon, Columbus, Albany and Valdosta.
His office is responsible for prosecuting federal crimes in the district, including terrorism, public corruption, child exploitation, fraud, firearms, illegal gangs and narcotics. The office also defends the United States in civil cases and collects debts owed to the federal government.
After being raised in Watkinsville and graduating from high school in 1996, he earned his bachelor’s and graduate law degrees from the University of Virginia, where he was a Jefferson Scholar. After law school, he clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Hugh Lawson of the Middle District of Georgia.
Following his clerkship, he joined the Federal Programs Branch of the DOJ through its Honors Program, where he worked extensively with the Intelligence Community. He has served the citizens of the Middle District as a prosecutor since 2012.
Since joining the United States Attorney’s Office, he has worked as the office’s Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council coordinator, its Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property prosecutor and as the First Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Leary also serves as adjunct faculty at Mercer University, teaching Criminal Justice. Long before he was a prosecutor and professor, though, he actually helped The Oconee Enterprise cover sports during his last year of high school.
“I walked up to [Sports Editor] Eric [Schmidt] at a game and asked why there was more coverage of the Oconee County than the Athens Academy sports,” Leary said. “I said, ‘How about I write sports for you, and you’ll have an extra person?”
In his brief tenure at the newspaper, the then-teenager Leary managed to land at least one big story. He covered the soccer tournaments hosted at Sanford Stadium as part of the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Growing up, Leary considered retired sheriff Scott Berry as a key inspiration for his own career in criminal justice. Berry’s appearance at a high school career day particularly stayed with Leary.
“He was one of my favorite speakers because he was passionate about his job,” Leary said. “That made a big impression on me how he could serve his community…[and] he loved serving his community every day.”
The prosecutor has also worked a number of cases alongside Berry and other Oconee law enforcement officers, and he “thinks the world” of the recently retired sheriff.
In fact, working with other men and women in law enforcement is what Leary enjoys most about his job.
“They work extremely long hours, and it’s very hard work...particularly in cases where we have victims of crime and we’re able to achieve some measure of justice for the victims,” he said.
Leary advised students considering a similar career path to talk to as many people as possible in law enforcement, particularly for their top fields of interest, as each field differs from another.
“If they can get an internship, that’s all the better,” he said. “A number of students have done internships with prosecutors or defense attorneys...and I think that’s invaluable in figuring out which career path you want to be in.”
He also pushed the crucial elements of hard work and building rapport with people, even if one is on the other side of the courtroom from them.
Although his job has taken him to the nation’s capital in recent years, Leary still very much considers the Middle Georgia area home.
“This is where I grew up and where my wife and I are raising our kids,” said Leary, “and I want to do my part to make it as safe for everybody.”