Judge Irving Still Hopes for Call to Head the FBI : If President Taps Him, Fans of San Diego Jurist Say, the Nation Will Get the Ideal Man as Its Top Cop

Times Staff Writer

First came the hints--the vague, adulatory column items nearly a year ago saying U.S. District Judge J. Lawrence Irving was under consideration for an important federal post.

Then came the opportunity--the announcement early this month that President Reagan had tabbed FBI Director William H. Webster as the man to take over the CIA.

Not more than a day later came the humble confirmation:

Yes, Irving told one columnist, his name was in the hopper for the FBI job. "I'm going to be considered," he said. "And if they asked, I doubt anybody could turn that down."

What had been rumored for a year now has become a matter of record. Larry Irving, lavishly lauded in San Diego but barely a blip on the national criminal justice scene, is engaged in a dark-horse campaign for the nation's top law enforcement job.

His fans--and they are legion--say he would be perfect for the post: a model of integrity, a conservative who has the guts to draw the line against investigative excess, a cool and collected leader who quickly gets his hands on every assignment he draws.

But can a federal district judge in faraway San Diego, no matter how well he is regarded at home, be taken seriously as a candidate for so high-level a Washington position? And is Irving, 52, doing what he needs to do to outpoint better-known contenders for a presidential nod?

The judge readily acknowledges he wants the job. "I can't think of a more exciting, interesting, challenging job in the United States or the world," he said in a recent interview.

But he is not talking about his strategy for getting it.

"I'm frankly reluctant to say much because I don't want anyone involved in the appointing process to think, 'Who is this judge in San Diego who has the arrogance to think he's being considered?' " Irving said.

He insists, too, that he isn't the sort to engage in an obvious drum-beating campaign on his own behalf. "I don't know how these things work," Irving said. "I pretty much have not been involved politically."

Don't think for a moment that there's anything unsophisticated about Irving, a multimillionaire who was considered one of San Diego's top trial lawyers before his appointment to the federal bench in 1982.

But it is a fact that Irving has not busied himself touching base with the power brokers who often have played a kingmaker role for San Diegans seeking federal appointments during the Reagan era.

He has not gone, hat in hand, to Great American Savings and Loan Assn. Chairman Gordon Luce, a self-described "junior member" of Reagan's kitchen cabinet and a longtime associate of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, the La Mesan who will recommend a new FBI director to the President.

He has not broken bread with financier Tom Stickel or radio executive Allan Royster, powerful younger Turks in the city's Republican Establishment. He hasn't paid a courtesy call on former Rep. Clair W. Burgener, gray eminence of the county GOP.

Nor has he contacted his congressman, Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego), or checked in with his senator, Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who eventually will vote on whichever nominee the President selects.

It isn't that Irving doesn't know how to get something he wants, however. It's just that he prefers the direct route.

"He let the President's office and the attorney general's office become aware he's had a lifelong interest in that role as head of the FBI," said retired San Diego County Superior Court Judge William Yale, a longtime friend.

Yale said Irving had talked directly about the job with Meese, whom he knew as a fellow lawyer in San Diego and with whom, according to Yale, he is on a first-name basis. Associates say Irving quietly put the word out about his interest last spring, when two years remained in Webster's 10-year term.

"He has not gone out on a full-court press to ask everybody he knows to write a letter or send a telegram," Yale said.

Irving is suave and low key, and a full-court press wouldn't be his style. Given the circles in which Irving travels, however, all that may not be necessary as he seeks the biggest job of his career.

"He's thought of favorably by a number of members of the Administration and/or by close advisers of the Administration," said another friend, John Seiber, a vice president with the Paine Webber brokerage firm in San Diego. "I would think those types of things would stand him in good stead."

Indeed, though Irving has not solicited Luce's support, Luce has lent it, according to Great American spokesman Kenneth Ulrich. Government officials recently have sought Luce's evaluation of Irving, and Luce has given a thumbs-up.

"Gordon's official position is that he does encourage his candidacy," Ulrich said last week. "He does think he'd be an excellent choice for the job, and he has made some public statements--public in the sense of to other people, government people and whatnot."

The Administration, however, is not saying how much weight it gives Irving's aspirations. Meese has launched a nationwide search for a successor to Webster. Irving's name has not appeared on any of the lists of leading prospects circulating through Washington--lists headed by two other Californians, Judge D. Lowell Jensen of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and Associate Atty. Gen. Stephen S. Trott.

"I don't know whether he's on a list or not," said Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland. "The attorney general never talks about personnel matters until they're announced at the White House."

Irving says only that the appropriate authorities in Washington are aware of his interest in the job.

"My name is in. I have been told it's being considered," he said, "but I don't know what that means. I don't know if there are 5,000 names . . . or if I'm on a limited list. I'll probably pick up the newspaper one morning and read that somebody else was appointed."

That aw-shucks attitude aside, Irving's boosters say there's a certain logic to his candidacy that merits decision makers' attention.

He's a Californian and a Republican, just like Ronald Reagan. He is known to Meese. He's an outsider whom no one could accuse of harboring vendettas against others in the FBI or the Justice Department. He's a federal judge, just as Webster was when he was plucked by President Jimmy Carter from the relative obscurity of his St. Louis chambers to begin a widely acclaimed nine-year career as guardian of the G-man tradition.

And, perhaps above all else, he's good. He was the first of Reagan's judicial nominees to be rated "exceptionally well qualified" by the American Bar Assn.--the highest ranking issued.

"The country can profit from a young, energetic, honest individual who possesses excellent administrative skills and very wise and sound judgment," said Chief U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. "That's what I think the job takes. And he's got it."

Irving is savvy. "Larry Irving will succeed at whatever he does," said attorney Robert Rose, a former federal prosecutor in San Diego. "Larry Irving could take that assignment tomorrow morning, and by the time the staff returned from lunch, he would know exactly what to do."

Even defense lawyers like him. "This guy would be great as FBI director," said Century City attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented former car maker John Z. DeLorean in bankruptcy proceedings in Irving's court, and who castigated the FBI's investigative practices while twice defending DeLorean on criminal charges.

"I think if Judge Irving was FBI director and he got wind of the type of conduct I've seen in some of the cases I've been involved in, he would put an immediate stop to it," Weitzman said. "He is a conservative, but one I believe would never tolerate abuses of constitutional rights."

One mark against Irving may be his lack of criminal law experience. Webster was a federal prosecutor before he became a judge, but Irving was a civil trial lawyer, defending lawyers and doctors in malpractice cases.

On the bench, Irving has drawn a succession of high-profile cases. A civil case--the J. David & Co. bankruptcy--attracted the most notice, as Irving jailed financier J. David Dominelli for contempt, showed up in person for the securities firm's bankruptcy auction, and rode herd on federal prosecutors to advance their slow-moving investigation of the J. David scandal.

But Irving has gained considerable criminal law experience in his five years as a federal judge. San Diego's border setting has thrust him into a series of complex drug smuggling cases--including the case of one defendant, Rene Martin Verdugo, that holds special interest for federal agents and prosecutors across the country.

Verdugo is charged as the kingpin of a major marijuana smuggling operation. But investigators also believe he is knowledgeable about--and may have played a role in--the kidnaping and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique S. Camarena two years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Irving enraged the federal law enforcement community with a ruling last month that barred prosecutors from using evidence seized in searches of Verdugo's homes in Mexico. Irving said DEA agents should have sought a U.S. warrant before joining Mexican federal police in the searches--an unprecedented procedural requirement. Implicitly, he criticized the U.S. agents for operating at the lower standards of investigative propriety commonly practiced in Mexico.

The decision won Irving no friends in the Justice Department, which has approved an appeal. But his backers say it was evidence of the independence of a man who calls them as he sees them, regardless of the possible effect on his personal ambitions.

"I don't think he's anybody's agent," said Frederick Tellam, a former law partner.

"He's literally held a law enforcement agency to account," said defense lawyer John Cleary. "The fact this judge called them to account, to me, to the analytical thinker, would make him a great person for director. He's not going to authorize any black-bag jobs."

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