FBI official smooths agencies' relationship

Field office: A new director is credited with improving communication with the state's U.S. attorney.

September 20, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Partnership, good communication, terrific relationship. That's how Maryland U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio describes his interaction with the FBI's Baltimore field office these days.

Yes, it's the same FBI he skewered in a memo 18 months ago as "a marginal presence, at best." The same agency that showed up on an internal U.S. attorney's office "to do" list made public last spring, with the objective: "Improve relationship with FBI."

The reason for the turnaround? Many familiar with the offices say it's Kevin Perkins, special agent in charge.

Perkins, a 44-year-old career agent who has worked in Kansas City, Atlanta, Philadelphia and FBI headquarters in Washington, took the helm of the Baltimore field office and its approximately 400 employees in late January. Since then, while guiding his office toward new official FBI priorities -- most notably terrorism and counterintelligence -- Perkins has also worked to smooth the relationship with DiBiagio.

"I work closely with Tom," he said. "Early on, I said `We need you, you need us.'"

The feeling, apparently, is mutual.

"Since Kevin has gotten here there's been a tremendous turnaround," DiBiagio said in an interview recently, while adding that he believes his past "professional disagreements" with the FBI have been blown out of proportion. "The communication is terrific."

Agents and prosecutors may have their private thoughts about leadership and the relationship between the two offices. But many say there's no doubt that Perkins has helped restore public civility, if not more, to their interactions. It doesn't hurt that Perkins and DiBiagio worked together on cases in the early 1990s, when Perkins was an agent in the Baltimore field office and DiBiagio was a federal prosecutor.

Many who know Perkins say they are not surprised by the development. Perkins is a savvy leader, they say, skilled at getting organizations to work together.

"He's a terrific guy to work with," said Dennis R. Schrader, director of the governor's homeland security office. "The leadership that comes from the special agent in charge is critical to keep all those various folks from the various organizations working as a team."

Perkins and the Baltimore field office, which covers all of Maryland, are responsible for the Maryland-Delaware Joint Terrorism Task Force, as well as the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center. But Perkins is loath to talk about his leadership role, giving praise instead to the agencies who run the operations.

"I've never seen a cooperative effort like I have in this territory," he said recently, sitting in his office in the new FBI headquarters building in Baltimore County.

But Perkins acknowledges it would be painting too glossy a picture to say that the FBI and other departments have shifted happily to a collaborative, terrorism-fighting focus.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, and the resulting criticism of the agency, FBI field offices across the country have had to remake themselves in accordance with new goals handed down by the top officials in the agency and administration. Perkins' predecessor, Gary Bald, oversaw much of the initial change, but it's now up to Perkins to keep steering the agency out of the tumult.

"The bureau has changed four or five times over its 100-plus-year history," Perkins said. "It's always hard ... but you're not going to chase the communist threat in the Cold War the same way you chase John Dillinger in the 1930s."

While he said he has embraced the agency's new goals, Perkins has also tried to prove to longtime agents that they will still fight public corruption, violent crime and other types of cases long associated with the FBI. He gives as examples the case against Nathan A. Chapman Jr., a Baltimore businessman convicted last month of fraud charges, and the recent indictments against men accused of robbing banks in Prince George's County with assault rifles.

That, he said, has made the transition easier for longtime FBI employees.

"They're adjusting to our new priorities," he said. "They're on board with it. They're seeing the benefit."

It has also helped win over DiBiagio, who says he sees eye-to-eye with Perkins about crime-fighting strategies.

"Kevin and I just agree," said DiBiagio, who has called fighting public corruption, violent crime and drug conspiracies his top goals. "I'll say, `Kevin, we'd like you to take a harder look at this,' and he'll say, `Yeah, I was just feeling the same way.'"

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