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FBI Once Planned to Push Pierce as Rival to King : Young N.Y. Lawyer Was Viewed as More Pliable Black Leader

Times Staff Writers

At the height of the FBI’s program to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, a key operative in the effort proposed developing “the right kind of national Negro leader . . . to overshadow Dr. King.”

The candidate suggested by former Assistant FBI Director William C. Sullivan was a young New York lawyer, Samuel R. Pierce Jr., whom the FBI viewed as more malleable and less troublesome than King, according to congressional sources who have seen the FBI files.

In the same week that Sullivan made his proposal, which was approved by former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover but never carried further, Pierce added to the luster of his already gleaming resume by arguing successfully before the Supreme Court on behalf of press freedom and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a landmark libel case.

Contrasting Portraits

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Those seemingly contrasting portraits of Pierce--one, a young man whom the FBI thought it could manipulate to replace the uncontrollable King, and the other, a brilliant attorney representing a leading black civil rights organization in the highest court of the land--presaged what is taking place 25 years later.

Once again, there are two contrasting views of Pierce. But now, neither is very flattering.

On the one hand, Pierce was “Silent Sam” or “the Dud at HUD,” terms commonly applied to the disengaged secretary of housing and urban development during the Ronald Reagan Administration. This is the Pierce whose profile was so low that Reagan, his boss, mistook him in 1981 for a mayor.

But a very different Pierce is portrayed by the secretary’s own memos and letters during his eight-year tenure at HUD--that of a hands-on administrator who was an active force in the political influence-peddling that occurred during his tenure but is only now being disclosed.

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Although Pierce told the House Government Operations subcommittee on May 25 that he was not a “hands-on” manager, he frequently issued instructions as to what interviews HUD officials could grant and even wrote words of caution about allowing a reporter from a trade publication to question an agency official on Federal Housing Administration financing.

“OK--But tell him to be very careful--I may change some of the decisions made by FHA on this subject matter,” he wrote in a note signed with his initials, SRP, to HUD public affairs official Bob Nipp, who had asked on May 20, 1988, for permission to schedule a brief interview.

‘Hatchet Job’

Stung by a highly critical April, 1983, Wall Street Journal article about his stewardship of HUD, Pierce fired off to then-Vice President George Bush a 10-page, single-spaced rebuttal prepared by Leonard Burchman, who was Pierce’s assistant secretary for public affairs. The memo, entitled “The Anatomy of a Hatchet Job,” was sent to HUD’s principal staff members and regional administrators.

Despite his long involvement with government--dating to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration--and his familiarity with the media, Pierce has been having difficulties in both areas in recent weeks.

It was surprising to many, for example, that the former HUD secretary, who had served as a House subcommittee counsel in the 1950s, appeared before the May subcommittee hearing without bringing along a lawyer. And some of his answers to questions, such as agreeing that he was not a “hands-on” manager, seemed injudicious to some former HUD associates.

Pierce, who was Reagan’s longest-serving Cabinet member, has also demonstrated little knack for dealing with the media since the controversy began. Until an interview with The Times last week, Pierce had remained silent in the face of the press barrage--despite suggestions by close associates that he discuss his perspective on the situation.

In contrast, former HUD official Thomas T. Demery hired a prominent public relations firm and, many Pierce associates believe, helped steer the congressional inquiry away from himself.

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Battering in Press

Yet Pierce remains keenly aware of the battering he has been taking in the press. He said last week that he reads at least three newspapers every day and is looking forward to his second appearance before the subcommittee, scheduled for Sept. 15. Pierce said he plans to be accompanied by a lawyer this time.

Some of Pierce’s former associates have proposed organizing a campaign among civil rights leaders to speak out in his defense, but the idea has not gone beyond discussions.

The percentage of black and female employees at HUD increased under Pierce, and his fight for fair housing laws remains one of the highlights of his eight years at the agency. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, which Pierce supported vigorously, made it easier for victims of discrimination to sue and stiffened penalties for violators.

“During my time, we got way more blacks involved with HUD as independent contractors, too,” Pierce said last week. “A lot of blacks got business, and we certainly didn’t ask them were they Republican, Democrat, liberal or what.”

Efforts Draw Fire

But Pierce’s efforts on behalf of some of his black friends have drawn fire. For instance, congressional investigators plan to question the former secretary about whether he aided longtime friend and Republican activist Lionel Hampton, the jazz musician.

In 1983, Hampton received a $21-million, 20-year rent subsidy from HUD for an 89-unit apartment project in Newark, N. J. It was one of the last grants given by HUD under a program to subsidize new construction that was later killed by Pierce.

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Pierce said last week that he did not help Hampton with the Newark project. But he acknowledged that he instructed aides to monitor Hampton’s efforts to obtain a piece of land in either Georgia or Florida. He said that deal eventually collapsed.

Career Plans Delayed

Pierce had become a wealthy and prominent New York corporate attorney before joining the Reagan Administration in 1981. The furor surrounding HUD has delayed his plans to resume his career.

Pierce now spends much of his time shuttling between New York and Washington and working from documents and memory to reconstruct some of the key incidents that have arisen in the HUD inquiry.

Although Pierce said that he hopes to clear up the confusion and misunderstandings that have arisen in recent weeks about his tenure, he said also that he realizes his testimony on Sept. 15 will not bring an end to the hearings or the headlines.

Indeed, Pierce is already scheduled to return to the subcommittee’s witness chair sometime in October.


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