WASHINGTON -- As political polls now testify, Ross Perot's personal touch and can-do style are a powerful potion. But there is a flip side to his appeal. Ross Perot, captain of industry, is also Ross Perot, super-cop and super-sleuth.
The same young naval officer who tired of the Navy as a "fairly Godless organization" in the 1950s has gone on to use his wealth and energy to build an intelligence network that reflects the military values taught him as an Annapolis midshipman.
The Perot reach goes well beyond run-of-the-mill background checks. His penchant for intrigue, a strict moral code and a fierce competitiveness have led him to authorize investigations that, according to a person familiar with his security operations, included videotaped surveillance of individuals, sometimes to probe for marital infidelities.
One example of Mr. Perot's methods involved his pursuit of police information about a high defense official with whom he was feuding. An Arlington, Va., police detective had linked the defense official to a Vietnamese-born female gambler in Virginia, and Mr. Perot later used these reports and accompanying photographs in a bitter fight reaching inside the Pentagon and the White House.
Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he obtained the information about the official only after the detective came to him. "An undercover policeman from the Washington area knocks on my hotel door and says . . . here is the file," he recently said on C-SPAN, the public affairs cable network. But the detective, James Badey, now retired, says that in fact Mr. Perot first called him "out of the clear" in early 1986 -- a few months after he had given his information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Moreover, Mr. Badey says, Mr. Perot already knew much of what he had told the FBI.
"I don't know why he tells it that way," says Mr. Badey, who continues to admire Mr. Perot and expects to vote for him for president. "He came to me, and I do not know why. He didn't get my name out of the phone book. Somebody had given him information. . . . He was right on target. My gut feeling was he was verifying what he already knew."
James Squires, a spokesman for the Perot campaign, initially challenged the retired detective's account but, after speaking again with Mr. Perot, said the candidate was re-examining his own version of events. "Mr. Perot doesn't think it's an impossibility that somebody told him to call Badey," Mr. Squires said.
Mr. Perot declined a request to explain what his policy has been or say whether he considers it permissible to surreptitiously collect information about the private lives of competitors or employees. Mr. Squires said Mr. Perot would only respond to specific cases or allegations and would not talk about general policy.
Mr. Perot's moral rectitude is legend among his business associates and has been one of the hallmarks of his campaign. In numerous television interviews, he has been questioned about the strict anti-adultery code he imposed on employees. "I have said on more than one occasion, If your wife can't trust you and you have a lifetime oath in front of a preacher with her, how can I?" Mr. Perot said in a recent David Frost TV interview. He has also said he would not knowingly appoint adulterers to high government posts.
People familiar with investigations financed by Mr. Perot and his companies say they know of nothing illegal about them. But interviews and a trail of court documents raise questions about Mr. Perot's use of power. "I know he can abuse power because I was on the receiving end," asserts John Wheeler, former chairman of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Fund, who was on the opposite side of Mr. Perot in a bitter fight over the design of the monument.
The flavor of that fight is illustrated by back-to-back exchanges between an attorney employed by Mr. Perot and the General Accounting Office, which was assigned to audit the veterans' memorial fund. In a morning interview with the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, the Perot attorney denied that the billionaire had made any "personal" allegations against the fund's leaders; but the attorney called back hours later to ask the GAO to investigate whether a woman, whom he identified as a possible mistress of a former Defense Department official, had received payments from the fund.
GAO working papers, released to the Wall Street Journal under a Freedom of Information Act request, show that Richard Shlakman, then a senior counsel at Mr. Perot's former company, Electronic Data Systems Corp., made the request in March 1984 but that no evidence was found of such payments. "Mr. Shlakman stated emphatically that we should not divulge where we received this tip," the GAO investigator reported in his contemporaneous notes. The Perot campaign spokesman refers questions on the matter to Mr. Shlakman. Mr. Shlakman, an executive with EDS in Texas, says he has "zero recollection" of the incident.