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Attorneys' Portraits of Miller: Inept Lout, Sharp FBI Agent

September 23, 1985|ERIC MALNIC | Times Staff Writer

The people defending the first FBI agent ever accused of espionage tend to portray him as as a bloated, forgetful, inept lout.

The people prosecuting Richard W. Miller on charges that he tried to sell secret government documents to Soviet intelligence agents for $65,0000 tend to portray him as a frequently conscientious agent whose performances occasionally earned him "excellent" ratings from FBI supervisors.

If all this seems a bid odd--that Miller's own attorneys scorn his reputation as an FBI agent, while attorneys for the government sometimes praise it--it's because of the strategy planned by his defense team.

Lawyers Stanley Greenberg and Joel Levine are attempting to convince Los Angeles federal court jurors that rather than trying to sell secrets to the Russians, Miller--hoping to salvage a failing career by impressing his supervisors--was attempting to successfully infiltrate a Soviet spy ring.

To support the thesis that Miller's bosses considered him a loser, the defense team called several of them to the stand last week.

Asked by Greenberg if he had ever tried to have Miller fired, former special Agent Homer Porter, who supervised Miller's FBI work in Los Angeles during the late 1970s, told the jury, "More than once."

"How many times?" Greenberg asked.

"At least three," Porter said.

Telling the jury that Miller had frequent problems that included using poor judgment, missing report deadlines, losing airline tickets, forgetting to submit expense vouchers and failing to keep his weight within prescribed limits, Porter said, "I cussed him out."

"Was anyone else present when you did this?" Greenberg asked.

"Well, I usually talked loud enough for everyone in the office to hear me," Porter replied.

Describing a meeting he and the 48-year-old defendant had with the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office, Porter said it was "one more time I appeared before the SAC with Mr. Miller on another problem. . . .

"Each time I would chew Mr. Miller out . . . I would have to go in," Porter said, adding that the procedure was repeated "regularly."

Another supervisor, special Agent Patrick Mullaney, read memoranda indicating that from 1969 until his arrest last May, Miller was repeatedly reprimanded, censured, suspended and placed on probation by FBI superiors.

"You have been rated unsatisfactory," Mullaney read from a 1976 letter to Miller signed by FBI Director Clarence Kelly. "You have not applied yourself to your investigative duties," Kelly wrote.

Mullaney said that in 1978, Miller was told that he was in "deep trouble."

The prosecutors--U.S. Atty. Robert Bonner and Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman--elicited testimony from these and other defense witnesses, however, that when Miller wanted to badly enough, he could do his work well.

Contending that a combination of financial and personal problems prompted Miller to try to sell classified FBI documents to the Soviets, the prosecution has pictured him as a selectively competent agent who could have been capable of trying to sell out his own country.

During the prosecutors' cross-examination of Mullaney, jurors heard that on several occasions after he had been placed on probation--and threatened with more severe discipline if he did not mend his ways--Miller showed marked improvement in his performance and willingness to abide by FBI guidelines.

"Miller has diligently pursued his assignments and worked long and demanding hours," Mullaney read from a 1976 memo recommending that Miller be removed from probation. "There has been a dramatic change."

'Dramatic Improvement'

Another period of probation, in 1979, was followed by another memo noting "dramatic improvement."

Porter testified that on one occasion, Miller asked him for permission to travel to Miami to give a speech on behalf of the FBI. Porter said he told the defendant that he could not go unless he bettered his performance.

Miller's work improved so much, Porter said, that he soon had some "atta-boy letters" in his file--"a pat on the back" and permission from Porter to make the coveted trip to Miami.

"His work was like a roller coaster," Porter said.

Greenberg agreed with that description as his defense team wrapped up its first week of testimony on Friday, arguing that Miller's involvement with Russian emigre Svetlana Ogorodnikova was yet another attempt to reverse the repeated plunges in his career.

Prosecutors offer a different scenario, contending that a combination of professional, personal and financial problems drove the philandering father of eight into Ogorodnikova's arms and that she lured him into handing over classified FBI documents for transmittal to Soviet agents.

Miller was arrested at his home in northern San Diego County last May. Ogorodnikova and her husband, Nikolai, arrested at the same time, have pleaded guilty to espionage charges and are in prison.

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