Friday, July 24, 1998

State's FBI chief since '95 retires


After I.C. Smith leaves his west Little Rock office a week from today and the door locks behind him, he won't get back in. The combination will change.
    At midnight, after more than 25 years of service, he will no longer be with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
    Smith has been special agent in charge of the FBI in Arkansas for three years. Thursday, he turned in his badge, a day after calling his staff into a meeting to announce his July 31 retirement.
    "I think it's important that you leave when you still have enthusiasm for a job," he said in his office Thursday.
    Smith, 55, said he started thinking about retirement in June. He decided it's best to leave quickly after announcing his departure so he won't face a long wait.
    He wants to read more. He wants to golf more. He wants to spend more time surfing the Internet. He wants to build a sailboat and a Cajun pirogue, a canoe. He's considering writing about his FBI experience. He hasn't had time for any of those because his job often requires 12-hour days.
    "I haven't been fishing since I've been in Arkansas," he said. "I brought new fishing gear with me when I moved here that I have never used."
    Smith started in Little Rock on July 31, 1995. On his first day, he told his secretary not to screen his calls, he said. Because of that, he's talked with hundreds of citizens about their feelings toward the FBI.
    "When you are inaccessible, sometimes it takes on a sinister air," he said. "When you're open, people realize that you're real people."
    Smith said he made himself available to journalists for that same reason. He said he avoided responding to reporters' questions with "no comment" and tried to offer whatever information he could.
    He said strengthening the bureau's relationship with local law-enforcement agencies was one of his most important accomplishments.
    Chief Deputy Danny Bradley of the Pulaski County sheriff's office said local officials appreciated Smith.
    "I hope the next agent in charge here is as easy to work with and cooperative as he's been," Bradley said.
    Sgt. George Craig, spokesman for the sheriff's office, said, "You couldn't ask for a better man, and you couldn't find a better man,"
    Smith said he's tried to emphasize civil-rights law enforcement. He wrote a pamphlet about the FBI's role in enforcing civil rights, and under his watch the Arkansas office investigated the summer 1996 church burnings, a high-profile civil- rights case.
    He also increased the office's investigation of public corruption, he said.
    "We've increased the overall complexity of our investigations into white-collar crime," he said.
    He cited investigations of illegal dealings within the defunct 7th Judicial District Drug Task Force, headed by former Prosecuting Attorney Dan Harmon of Benton. Harmon has been convicted of several felonies.
    Smith said the office's openness and activity with civil rights and white-collar cases have caused people to feel comfortable about calling the bureau with tips helping the bureau with investigations.
    "We now get calls every day from individuals who have confidence in the FBI to let us know of things they feel are important," he said.
    The mood in the office turned somber after Smith's announcement, Sandy Finch, his secretary, said. Others said Smith also fostered openness within the agency.
    "He's very personable," said Brent Mosher, supervisor for violent crimes, domestic terrorism and national foreign intelligence.
    "I can't think of an instance when anyone couldn't walk into his office and discuss any personal problems or problems on their jobs," Mosher said. "We're going to miss him.
    "I think the man has a near-photographic memory," Mosher said. "You can talk to him about names, dates and places. He locks in on it, and at a later date he can recall it."
    Mosher said Smith's Washington connections also helped the office.
    One of his jobs there was counter-intelligence. He headed an investigation into a Chinese spy who landed a job in the CIA. Smith spent about a year away from the Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, and went to the State Department, where he helped with security at embassies and protected American officials traveling abroad.
    After returning to the FBI, he worked in Australia for more than two years as a legal attache. He taught law-enforcement techniques to police on South Pacific islands.
    He displays model boats from Samoa and Fiji in his office, along with other souvenirs.
    Smith grew up near Calhoun, La. He was a police officer in Monroe, La., before working for the FBI. He wanted to come to Arkansas in part because family members moved here.
    While special agent in charge, Smith experienced two dark days, he said. One came in 1995 when a man he was investigating hanged himself in jail. The other came in 1997 when an FBI truck, along with the guns inside, was stolen in Memphis. That attracted national media attention.
    Smith quickly took responsibility, although he was not directly involved. He said Thursday that some FBI employees have been disciplined.
    But he wouldn't elaborate.
    He said the hanging and the theft of the truck did not cause him to retire. He just feels as if it is time to go, he said.
    Until FBI Director Louis Freeh chooses Smith's replacement, William Temple, assistant agent in charge, will head the Little Rock office.
    Meanwhile, Smith said he will watch the FBI after he leaves. And he won't be too shy to call with his opinions, he said.

Copyright 1998, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. All rights reserved.