FBI director's job would play to nominee Freeh's strengths, friends say

July 21, 1993|By New York Times News Service

In nominating Judge Louis J. Freeh to be FBI director, President Clinton turned to a man who, the judge's friends say, has been unconsciously training for the job his entire professional life.

Judge Freeh is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor whose work on complex and celebrated government cases led to his appointment, at the age of 41, to a federal judgeship in New York City.

Friends and supporters say the director's job is one that plays to Judge Freeh's strengths.

Described by former colleagues as an innovative investigator and tactician, as well as a leader and comrade, Judge Freeh at times sounds too good to be true.

Some current and former law-enforcement officials say that despite his investigative experience, Judge Freeh, 43, would come to the bureau with no experience at running a vast agency of more than 20,000 employees, an organization burdened by budgetary cutbacks and an increasingly restive work force.

In addition, they say, the judge's expertise in the Mafia reflects a bygone era of investigative work. The focus today, they say, is on other immigrant groups, such as Asians, with which the judge has had little first- hand experience.

Still, those who have known and worked with him say the Jersey City, N.J., native they call Louie is one of those people who lives up to his notices. They say that unlike some who rise to high office, Judge Freeh (pronounced Free) has achieved his status not so much by making the right moves as by doing the right thing. In fact, friends say, he did not campaign for the director's job and made it clear he would be happy to remain a judge.

"He combines the best skills of an investigator with the best instincts of a trial lawyer," said Howard M. Shapiro, a former colleague in the office of the U.S attorney for the Southern District of New York who is now a professor at Cornell University Law School. "And he has this innate leadership ability which was frankly stunning to watch."

Despite his major roles in high-profile investigations such as the 17-month trial in the "Pizza Connection case," which ended in March 1987 with the convictions of 17 defendants on charges of operating an international drug ring and moving tens of millions of dollars and using pizzerias as fronts, Judge Freeh is not well known outside law-enforcement circles.

That, say his friends, is by the choice of the judge, whom they describe as a private man whose life revolves around his wife, Marilyn, and their four young sons, as well as law enforcement. He even met his wife when she was a clerical worker at the FBI's agency headquarters in Washington.

With his dark, deep-set eyes and somber mien, Judge Freeh can come across as a bit grim. "He kind of looks like a sourpuss because he brings such seriousness to his work," said James Esposito, the agent in charge of the FBI's Newark, N.J., office, who has known the nominee since both worked in FBI headquarters in the late 1970s.

Those who know him describe his daily life as no-frills. For Judge Freeh, lunch is usually a sandwich from the cafeteria in the federal courthouse, or a slice of pizza from a pizzeria near Foley Square.

But they say his strait-laced, businesslike manner masks an impish side that he reveals only to his close friends and associates. "He has a wonderful sense of humor when he doesn't have a public profile," said Mr. Esposito.

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