In the fast-growing field of private investigating and intelligence companies, a new entrant based in Washington has brought together veterans of the Korean influence-peddling investigation and the Spiro Agnew scandal, old hands from Scotland Yard and the FBI, and European tax investigators to look into business frauds for corporate clients.
Assembled as "The Williams Group," they describe themselves as "a team that works quietly, competently and quickly" for clients who wish, for example to "discreetly examine corporate misconduct or improprieties."
The Williams is Bob Williams, a former Washington correspondent for Forbes magazine and Reuters news agency. He has formed what amounts to a private detective agency, except that its targets are more complex and its clients more affluent than those of the traditional gumshoe.
"We don't look through transoms," Williams said. "The word 'investigations' has a pejorative sense around the world--guys rescuing kids from cults, retired street cops following wives. We don't do any of that."
What the group does do, he said, is provide sophisticated information, assembled by accountants, experienced investigators, detectives and journalists, to lawyers and corporate clients looking into business fraud.
It is the use of journalists, and the listing of several of them in a brochure advertising his service, that has brought Williams' fledgling operation its first controversy. The brochure lists the journalists along with the accountants, tax investigators and FBI agents, making no distinctions among them or their roles in the Williams Group, and raising questions about the journalists' affiliations.
Three of the journalists are well-known Washington correspondents of national news organizations: Fred Barnes of the Baltimore Sun, David Beckwith of Time and Leonard Curry of Newhouse News Service.
Yesterday the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which controls the accreditation of journalists in the congressional press galleries, sent letters to Barnes and Curry asking whether their association with the Williams group was in conflict with their roles as journalists.
Beckwith, Barnes and Curry said they are friends of Williams and have given him advice and assistance in setting up the company, but insist they are not working for his agency.
Barnes and Beckwith also said they would get no money from the agency.
"To the extent that anyone might assume I would be available, the brochure is misleading," Barnes said. "Every cent I make is earned through journalism."
Beckwith said he was "an unpaid friend and adviser" to Williams, "and if the implication is that I'm doing any investigating or acting other than as a member of a board of directors, it's false."
Curry said, "You would get paid only on the basis of what business you might bring in," but added, "if there was any conflict I would have to drop out."
Williams said that despite the wording of the promotional brochure, "it's extremely unfair to these three guys to say that they would use their credentials, their standing or reputation, to get information on my behalf. Are they going to act as investigators? No. Not in any way, shape or form."