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Michael Shaheen

On Investigating the Investigators: A Watchdog at Justice

January 04, 1998|Ronald J. Ostrow | Ronald J. Ostrow covers the Justice Department for The Times

WASHINGTON — Michael E. Shaheen Jr., the only man to hold the Justice Department's top internal watchdog post since it was created by reform-minded Atty. Gen. Edward H. Levi in December 1975, brought an unlikely set of credentials to a position that called for a skilled tight-rope walker.

The sensitivity and importance of the job can be seen in the cases his office tackled--from FBI officials engaging in self-enriching activities, through FBI harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., to prosecutorial misconduct, to evidence of ethical insensitivity that led to the firing of FBI Director William S. Sessions. With public attention fixed on the wisdom of having independent counsels step in whenever the going gets sensitive, Shaheen's office presents another model.

The son of a wealthy Mississippi doctor who broke local color taboos by treating black patients equally with whites, Shaheen ventured into Yankee territory for his prep school and Yale University education. After Vanderbilt Law School, he clerked for a federal judge in Tennessee and lawyered there and in his hometown of Como, Miss., where he was elected mayor while still in his 20s. Shaheen, 57, is married to Polly Dammann, an attorney in Justice's civil division. They have two sons.

He joined the Justice Department in 1973 and, after two years in various civil-rights division posts, became Levi's special counsel for intelligence. His work as a bridge to Senate investigators probing counter-intelligence excesses, most notably those of the FBI, won the attorney general's confidence. The insights from files not intended for outsiders led Shaheen to propose the institution of centralized, more effective Justice Department controls over FBI investigative activities. Soon after that, Levi created the Office of Professional Responsibility and named Shaheen to head the new office whose bureaucratic title obscured its potential power.

Shaheen's style helps explain his staying power under eight attorneys general, most of whom have come under some criticism by OPR. He combines a Southern courtliness with an explosive sense of humor, the kind of appreciation usually associated with knee-slapper jokes.

But not all Shaheen's work has been trouble-free. In fact, his decision to take advantage of an early-retirement provision that ran out Dec. 31 results in part from his tiring of a turf struggle with the department's inspector general over investigative jurisdiction. Whatever caused him, after 22 years, to leave a post he first thought he would hold for no longer than a year, his lengthy tenure afforded him a rare insight into ethics at the highest level of federal law enforcement.


Question: You were named to this post by a reform attorney general, Edward H. Levi. It was in the wake of disclosures of FBI and intelligence agency abuses. Twenty-two years later, are those problems worse or better?

Answer: In the course of the Church and Pike Special Intelligence Committee investigations, the disclosures were a running litany of outrageous intelligence agency conduct. We are a far cry from that situation now. I am satisfied, and I believe the leadership of the department is satisfied, that there is no systemic program of abuse by any component in the Executive Branch, and I can assure you that includes the FBI and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]--the law enforcement components over which we have the most immediate oversight.

Q: Have the reasons for those problems changed over the same span? For example, perhaps greed motivated wrongdoers in the past, and it's now something like arrogance and power.

A: Now, as then, personal greed remains the overarching human frailty that invites people to engage in misconduct. Back then, however, there were a couple of things that are not as much a factor now . . . . We don't have a nation with a movement of discontent in its youth as we did back then. We don't have a frustrated civil-rights movement, and that frustra- tion evidencing itself in street protests. As a result, we don't have intelligence communities or law-enforcement entities with intelligence components responding to fight these back. The final reason for the change is the certainty of accountability we have established in the department and its law enforcement components.

Q: An important part of your job from the beginning was to serve as the attorney general's eyes and ears for ethical and perhaps legal wrongdoing inside the Justice apparatus. Were there any offenses you relayed to attorneys general over the years that you did not make public?

A: In fact most of the offenses that we encountered, investigated and got to the core of, and brought a department solution to, have always remained unrecorded publicly. Always have been reported in one form or another to the attorney general or the deputy attorney general, but most of our work has been confidential in nature, with the results remaining confidential as well.

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