As the special counsel charged with uncovering the roots of the Maryland thrift crisis, a little known corporate lawyer from Baltimore named Wilbur D. Preston Jr. has become one of the most powerful and feared figures in the state.

Armed with subpoena power, a broad statutory mandate and a $500,000 budget paid by the state, Preston and a handful of associates have had the authority to poke into every corner of the state bureaucracy and the savings and loan industry for answers to the questions of what went wrong in the $9 billion industry. It is a determination that could have a profound impact on the careers of some of the state's top bureaucrats and politicians.

By all accounts, Preston's probe was an unrelenting and exhaustive search.

The cartons of documents he collected filled entire rooms in a 15th-floor suite that in normal times serves as Gov. Harry Hughes' Baltimore office.

Fellow lawyers who know the 63-year-old managing partner of the respected firm of Whiteford, Taylor, Preston, Trimble & Johnston say that Preston was an exceptional choice for the delicate task of assigning blame for the worst banking calamity in Maryland's history.

Reared in Baltimore, Preston attended Western Maryland College and the University of Maryland law school. He is married and his family likes to spend time at their beach house in Delaware, where Preston fishes.

Although he spent much of his legal career far from the public domain, representing such corporate giants as Amoco and Hughes Aircraft and specializing in the arcane field of antitrust law, Preston said he has had a lifelong but unfulfilled itch to be a government lawyer.

"This has given me the chance to be involved in government in a unique way, in an uncharted way," said Preston, who added that he was "exhilarated by this" probe.

"He's a lawyer's lawyer," said George A. Nilson, a Piper & Marbury lawyer and next door neighbor of Preston's. "He's a natural choice for this job. He's regarded as a no-nonsense guy, he has good judgment and he's politically savvy without being politically encumbered. He just has a lot of respect."

From the beginning, Preston has been meticulous to a fault. When Hughes offered him the post in mid-June, Preston spent more than a week investigating whether any of the 75 lawyers in his firm had any client relationships that would conflict with his role as special counsel.

"He's been incredibly thorough," said one state official whose own agency has come under Preston's microscope. "No document seems to be too far removed . . . . He's looked at them, catalogued them and cross-indexed them."

A tall man with a slightly patrician bearing, Preston has a reputation for keeping a firm hand on his cases.

"When Woody Preston does something, he's . . . the captain of the ship," said one Baltimore lawyer. "You have the sense this his report is going to have his personal stamp and imprimatur."

Preston has clearly relished his role. His recollection of the day he and his colleagues began poring over the initial wave of documents is like a child's remembrance of his first Christmas: "We all started reading and calling out 'My God, come look at this!' " he said.

"I didn't come into this with any preconceived ideas about what our investigation would reveal," said Preston. "But the biggest shock to me is the tremendous number of things it has revealed."