For more than three decades, William H. Webster has been on the short list of men to call in a government crisis.
Yesterday, a troubled federal agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, pressed Webster into service again, as chairman of a new panel designed to clean up the accounting industry after scandals at Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. exposed deep conflicts of interest in the profession.
His election to the oversight board did not come without criticism from some financial experts, who praised his devotion to public service but wondered if Webster, 78, has the stamina and financial acumen necessary to build a regulatory body from scratch.
"Whatever expertise in specific areas we may lack or need among ourselves, we can or will obtain and utilize from others as our charter clearly contemplates," Webster said in a prepared statement yesterday.
Supporters point to his history as the holder of one of the nation's most stellar resumes. He became FBI director when the agency's image was still tarnished by J. Edgar Hoover and Watergate and took over the Central Intelligence Agency at the request of President Ronald Reagan as the Iran-contra scandal developed in 1987.
Since leaving the government in 1991, Webster has run commissions examining the Internal Revenue Service's treatment of taxpayers and how the government investigated rogue FBI agent Robert P. Hanssen.
Webster's performance mostly has been acclaimed. His monitoring of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union and an internal investigation he conducted for corporate client General Motors Corp. were criticized by some.
Webster began his government career in Missouri, where he was a U.S. attorney, a trial judge and then a federal appeals court judge. For the past 11 years, the judge, as he likes to be called, has been a senior partner in the Wall Street law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, whose profit per partner averaged $1.6 million in 2001, according to American Lawyer magazine.
Former SEC chief accountant Lynn E. Turner, among others, has expressed concerns about Webster's lack of accounting knowledge. But Webster was a quick study at the CIA and in complex cases he took on in private practice, friends and former colleagues said.
"He's probably the perfect choice to take over a very tricky issue," said Milton A. Bearden, a CIA official during the Webster years who said it is sometimes a good idea to bring someone new "into a thorny issue because they're not burdened by too much nonsense."
"He's the guy who has gotten through the toughest of the tough jobs . . . and he's done just fine," Bearden said.
In 1992, soon after Webster left the CIA, the police commission in Los Angeles appointed him to run an investigation into the riots that broke out after police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Within months, Webster organized a staff of 100 lawyers and investigators who eventually determined that the mayor, police chief and city council each deserved some of the blame for the violence.
A year later, the top lawyer at General Motors hired Webster to investigate the shredding of safety-related documents at the automaker. GM pledged to get to the bottom of the charges. Plaintiffs' lawyers said they later learned that Webster made an oral report to the general counsel, Harry Pearce, and never put anything in writing, at Pearce's instructions.
That infuriated lawyers suing GM on behalf of car-crash victims. "It speaks volumes about the investigation," said Atlanta lawyer J.E. Butler. "The contrast between Pearce saying they were going to investigate and make the results public and then Webster making the report orally, and to Pearce only, is as powerful I think as having a transcript. There's only one reason for them to hide it. That's because it's damning."
Pearce, who is now chairman of Hughes Electronics Corp., said Webster's work was "as good as I've seen . . . a totally candid and honest assessment."
When Webster was on an independent board overseeing the Teamsters in the 1990s, some union members complained that the panel did not move quickly enough to investigate charges that Ron Carey, the union president, was abusing his position. Carey left the job in 1997 after his staff was implicated in a scheme to use dues money in his reelection campaign.
More recently, Webster was "very instrumental" in helping to settle in 2000 a multimillion-dollar battle between the Marriott hotel chain and some of its investors, said Richard Hoffman, a lawyer involved in the case.
These days, Webster, who played tennis with Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, remains active on the courts. He and his wife own a house in Virginia's horse country where they frequently spend weekends.
Terry Adamson, who was a Justice Department official during Webster's time at the FBI and an occasional tennis rival, said: "He's someone used to bringing viewpoints together, hearing them and then making a judgment about them. That's one of his great strengths and probably why he is the most called upon person in Washington for crisis situations."