Harry L. Freeman, American Express executive embroiled in investigation, dies at 79

Harry L. Freeman, 79, a top executive at American Express who publicly claimed responsibility for an investigation in the 1980s that tarnished the reputation of a rival banker, died June 6 at his home in the Montgomery County town of Somerset.

He had complications from multiple systems atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder.

Mr. Freeman, a Harvard Law School graduate with years of executive experience, joined American Express in 1975 as vice president for government relations. The financial conglomerate deals in banking, credit cards and travel services.

He became executive vice president for corporate affairs and communications, overseeing the firm’s public relations departments and philanthropic initiatives, as well as arts sponsorships, including musical programs at the Kennedy Center. He was a confidant of American Express chief executive James D. Robinson III and was often tapped to take on special projects.

“What’s undeniable is that he was a very smart guy of immense value to Jim Robinson,” said journalist and author Bryan Burrough, who wrote a definitive account of Robinson and Mr. Freeman in the Wall Street Journal in 1990.

Mr. Freeman was on the cusp of retiring in 1989 when he emerged in news headlines in connection with American Express’s unsavory investigation of a potential rival.

The reputed competitor was Edmond Safra, an international banker with Middle Eastern and Latin American clients. In 1983, American Express had purchased a Swiss bank from Safra for $550 million and absorbed the operation into the firm.

After a falling out with American Express executives, Safra resigned and agreed not to start a competing bank until 1988.

When American Express executives became suspicious that Safra had violated his “non-compete” pledge, Mr. Freeman was asked to lead an investigation to prove the violation, news accounts said at the time .

According to a Wall Street Journal article by Burrough, investigators under Mr. Freeman took part in a smear campaign against Safra and planted stories in newspapers, connecting the banker to the Mafia, South American cocaine cartels and the Iran-Contra affair.

Moreover, some of the articles on Safra, a billionaire philanthropist for Jewish causes, appeared in anti-Semitic newspapers, the Journal reported.

Although background investigations of competitors are commonplace in the high-stakes domain of international banking, the Safra affair revealed that American Express was apparently willing “to engage in unseemly corporate revenge when confronting a rival,” Burrough wrote.

Mr. Freeman maintained that the people he oversaw went beyond their orders in the course of the investigation and that the effort to discredit Safra was unauthorized.

In July 1989, American Express publicly apologized to Safra and donated $8 million to charities of his choice. Mr. Freeman publicly accepted responsibility for the investigation and quietly retired in early 1990.

“A well-intentioned effort for which I had executive responsibility went awry,” Mr. Freeman wrote in a 1989 statement. “Mistakes were made on my watch.”

Robinson resigned in 1993. In 1999, Safra died in a fire at his Monaco penthouse, in a case that police said was arson. Safra’s American nurse was convicted of the crime.

Mr. Freeman sued Burrough and the Wall Street Journal for $50 million on charges that his portrayal in the 1990 article was libelous. Mr. Freeman later dropped the suit.

Harry Louis Freeman was born March 1, 1932, in Omaha. He was a 1953 economics graduate of the University of Michigan and received a law degree from Harvard in 1956.

During the 1960s, he worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the political risk insurance and foreign investment departments, overseeing programs in Africa, Latin America and Asia. He later worked for the Overseas Private Investment Corp., as a vice president in the political-risk insurance arm, and Bechtel, an engineering firm based in San Francisco.

His first marriage, to Thelma-Jeanne Friedman, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Lucile Carpenter Freeman of Somerset; a son from his first marriage, Bennett Freeman of Washington; three children from his second marriage, Lansing Freeman of Washington, Rachel Freeman of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Alexandra Freeman of Glen Echo; a brother; and four grandchildren.

CLARIFICATION:

The June 18 obituary for former American Express executive Harry L. Freeman should have noted his leadership role during the multilateral trade negotiations known as the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While at American Express and after he left the company in 1990, Mr. Freeman headed a coalition of American corporations that had an impact on U.S. government policy and international trade policy.

Mr. Freeman was a crucial figure in the movement to persuade members of Congress and the executive branch to include services — “travel, education, business services, financial and banking services,” as he once defined them — in trade negotiations.

Previously, agricultural products and manufactured goods dominated the discussion in trade talks. In addition, few saw the service sector, whether accounting firms, banks or food-service companies, as providing exports in the traditional sense.

During the Uruguay Round, Mr. Freeman was credited with helping spur significant agreements to address service-industry concerns in the international marketplace. “He put services on the map and was indefatigable about it,” said Joan E. Spero, a former American Express executive who served as Bill Clinton’s undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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