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OBITUARIES / Michael E. Shaheen Jr.

Top internal watchdog for the Justice Department

December 03, 2007|Patricia Sullivan | Washington Post

Michael E. Shaheen Jr., the Justice Department's top internal watchdog from 1975 to 1997, who never feared attacking abuses by top officials, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday at his home in Falls Church, Va. He was 67.

A scathing report by Shaheen in 1993, which accused FBI Director William Sessions of misuse of government property, led to President Clinton's dismissal of Sessions. In 1989, Shaheen wrote a 61-page report that said former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese had engaged in "conduct which should not be tolerated of any government employee, especially not the attorney general."

As the founding director of the Office of Professional Responsibility, Shaheen conducted investigations of high-ranking Cabinet officials, senior White House employees and more than one president. A job he thought would run no more than a year lasted 22 years, through the tenure of eight attorneys general.

"He was a straight arrow, he was a professional in every sense of the word, and he took his job very seriously," former FBI and CIA Director William Webster said Friday. "He was the go-to guy on any kind of ethical inquiry."

Shaheen challenged the appearance of oil and gas tax shelters held by Atty. Gen. William French Smith and rebuked Atty. Gen. Benjamin Civiletti, who had denied that he had discussed the investigation of Billy Carter, a registered foreign agent for Libya, with his brother, President Jimmy Carter.

He attacked the Clinton White House in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 1995 for its failure to cooperate in his investigation of firings in the White House travel office. For two years, his office had asked for diaries or journals kept by deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster, who committed suicide during the investigation.

But it was while reading a magazine article that Shaheen learned that Foster had kept a daily log that the administration had not turned over, he told the committee.

In addition to investigating headline names, Shaheen and his office also examined misconduct in the ranks of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol, Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service.

His credibility stemmed from his willingness to tackle the misdeeds of top officials, and not just those of the less powerful. In 1978, his office published the Justice Department's first report on abuses by longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his inner circle. Shaheen said at the time that "there definitely would have been prosecutions" if the statute of limitations hadn't prevented it. Hoover died in 1972.

Colleagues said Shaheen's style helped explain how he managed to hold the watchdog position for so long. "He combined a Southern courtliness with an explosive sense of humor, the kind of appreciation usually associated with knee-slapper jokes," said former Los Angeles Times reporter and author Ronald J. Ostrow.

Shaheen was born in Boston and grew up in Mississippi. He graduated from Yale University and in 1965 received a law degree from Vanderbilt University. He clerked for a federal judge in Tennessee and practiced law in Como, Miss., where he was elected mayor while still in his 20s.

He practiced law in Memphis before joining the Justice Department in 1973 in the civil rights division. Two years later, he was special counsel for intelligence to Atty. Gen. Edward Levi. Levi established the Office of Professional Responsibility at the end of 1975 and picked Shaheen to head it.

At the time, the office was the only agency in the executive branch that could start administrative and criminal internal investigations. It never had more than 35 lawyers, but it conducted thousands of examinations.

After his resignation in 1997, Shaheen served as chief counsel and deputy executive director of the congressionally mandated Commission on the Advancement of Federal Law Enforcement. He was also special investigative counsel for an independent review of the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation division. In 2000, he became senior counselor to then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti.

Survivors include his wife, Polly, of Falls Church; three sons, Michael Shaheen III of Ithaca, N.Y., Timothy Shaheen of Falls Church and Francisco Macedo of Atlanta; four half sisters; a half brother; and three grandchildren.

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