Freeh gets praise for heading Penn State investigation

Posted: November 21, 2011

Louis J. Freeh knows how it feels to run a once-revered institution that is accused of negligence, malpractice, and incompetence.

He ran the FBI for eight turbulent years.

As FBI director, Freeh endured inquiries into the deaths at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the Robert Hansen spy scandal, the fumbled 1996 Olympics bomb investigation, and the troubled case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. Freeh later fought off claims that the FBI missed opportunities to catch the 9/11 hijackers.

But Freeh also knows what it takes to investigate those in power, from mobsters who put tons of drugs on the streets of New York to a president who lied about an affair with a White House intern.

"All of that experience should serve him well," former FBI assistant director Barry Mawn said of Freeh's appointment Monday as special investigator in the Pennsylvania State University scandal. "Louis is a wise pick. Down the road, though, what he finds out may not be what they want to hear."

Freeh's personal perspective may be as significant as his professional qualifications, said Howard Means, who cowrote Freeh's 2004 memoir, My FBI.

"He's the father of four children and he is an altar boy," Means said. "Louis is a very moral man, and has a strong relationship with the Catholic Church. He must have had a very visceral reaction when he first heard about this case. This is right down his alley - the alleged crime is one that would deeply offend him. He's a bulldog, and I think he'll wade in there and do everything he can to piece the story together."

Mary Jo White, who was U.S. attorney in Manhattan during the Clinton administration, said Freeh's background as investigator, prosecutor, and judge - but also the FBI's struggles in the 1990s - should serve the Penn State investigation well.

"It's a hard assignment, and he's a superb choice," said White. "We all learn from every experience, particularly the ones that are difficult. You learn a lot about how problems happen, a little bit about why they happen, and how to right the ship. So I think his work will be informed by a very mature sense of judgment, and the understanding that problems do occur and there is a 'day after.' "

At a news conference Monday, Freeh said, "I am committed to ensuring that our independent investigation be conducted in a thorough, fair, comprehensive manner, leaving no stone unturned, and without any fear or favor." He declined to take questions.

Freeh, 61, grew up and attended college and law school in North Jersey. As FBI street agent, prosecutor and federal judge, he was stationed in New York. He has backed Republican candidates in Delaware, where he lives, but it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who appointed him FBI director.

In that post, he got into the weeds on big cases, travelling to Saudi Arabia after the Khobar Towers bombing, to Oklahoma City for the federal building bombing, and to Yemen, when the Cole had been attacked.

"He likes to be on the ground," said Means, his coauthor.

Freeh increased the FBI's focus on child predators, launching a program called Innocent Images in which agents went into Internet chatrooms and posed as young teens. Freeh was shocked by the number of predators agents found.

"It was like happening upon some incredible trout stream never before visited," he wrote in his memoir. "The fish just couldn't stop taking the bait. The more people we put on the program, the more cases we made."

Many agents still revere Freeh. They say he modernized the post-J. Edgar Hoover FBI and had the foresight to place agents overseas in U.S. embassies long before 9/11.

"He got a bad rap from Congress and the media," said retired FBI agent Jesse Coleman. "He was an agent's director - always stood up for us."

After Freeh resigned from the FBI in 2001, he became general counsel for the credit-card behemoth MBNA in Wilmington - a move that made him a wealthy man. According to Securities and Exchange Commission documents related to Bank of America's $35 billion acquisition of MBNA in 2006, Freeh earned at least $20 million in stock options.

Freeh's law firm, Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, based in Wilmington, Washington, and New York, has worked on several other recent high-profile internal investigations - including the bribery case involving the presidential election of the global soccer governing body and a SAT cheating scandal on Long Island.

Freeh said Monday that his investigation would be reaching back to 1975 - coincidentally, the year he became an FBI agent.


Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 301-320-6655 or jshiffman@phillynews.com.

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