In an unprecedented action, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh on Friday suspended former Deputy Director Larry A. Potts and three other FBI managers after learning that they are suspected of perjury and making false statements about the 1992 Ruby Ridge, Ida., siege in which a white separatist's wife was killed by an FBI sharpshooter.
The Justice Department, which advised Freeh that the four officials are suspected of wrongdoing, referred the cases and that of another suspended FBI official to Eric H. Holder Jr., the U.S. attorney here, for possible prosecution.
The revelations of suspected wrongdoing inside the nation's premier law enforcement agency are more sweeping than the ethics violations that led to President Clinton's firing of former FBI Director William S. Sessions and the burning of Watergate-related evidence in his fireplace that led to the 1973 resignation of Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray III.
The events are particularly troubling for Freeh because they involve men that he relied on and elevated, particularly Potts, the official he said he knew best in the bureau and whom he described as "superb."
"The FBI must be held to the highest standards," Freeh said. "I remain committed to obtaining the full truth about what occurred during and after the tragic events at Ruby Ridge. Any wrongdoing by FBI employees in connection with those events will result in tough and swift action against them."
Potts' lawyer, Dan K. Webb, said: "There is absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing by Larry Potts." Webb said that the suspension "is completely unwarranted" and that he is certain Potts will be exonerated and reinstated by the FBI "in the very near future."
Kevin Ohlson, spokesman for U.S. Atty. Holder, acknowledged that the inquiry had been opened, and added: "It is premature to say at this point whether any criminal charges will actually result from this investigation."
In addition to Potts, 47, whom Freeh removed as the FBI's No. 2 official on July 14 and transferred to the bureau's training division in Quantico, Va., those suspended include:
* Danny O. Coulson, now special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas division. At the time of Ruby Ridge, Coulson was deputy to Potts, who then headed the criminal investigative division. Coulson also was the first head of the FBI's controversial Hostage Rescue Team.
* Gale Richard Evans, now assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Salt Lake City division. He was a unit chief in the violent-crime section in 1992.
* Anthony A. Betz, assistant special agent in charge of the bureau's Baltimore division, who headed the domestic terrorism unit at the time of Ruby Ridge.
On July 11 Freeh suspended E. Michael Kahoe, special agent in charge of the FBI's Jacksonville, Fla., division after he allegedly admitted destroying a document describing the Ruby Ridge action. Kahoe headed the violent-crime and major offender section in 1992. His case also was referred for prosecution.
"These suspensions are consistent with Department of Justice policy," Freeh said, apparently referring to the policy that subjects of criminal referrals are to be suspended with pay until the inquiries are completed.
The suspensions "will remain in effect pending further investigation into this matter," Freeh said in a written statement. "Once the investigation is completed, I will decide whether any additional disciplinary action against these individuals is appropriate."
Freeh said that the Friday suspensions resulted from a report to Deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie S. Gorelick by Michael E. Shaheen Jr., head of the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, its internal watchdog unit.
Shaheen reopened the Ruby Ridge investigation after Eugene Glenn, former special agent in charge of the Salt Lake City division and one of those most severely disciplined over Ruby Ridge, filed a complaint charging that earlier investigations were flawed.
The alleged false statements and perjury under investigation concern the question of whether Potts, before the white separatist's wife was killed by an FBI sharpshooter at Ruby Ridge on Aug. 22, 1992, had approved changes in "rules of engagement" for the siege allowing agents more freedom to fire their weapons.
Potts has denied approving the change but two other FBI officials, who received more severe punishment, have sworn that he did, according to sources close to the investigation. They include Glenn and Richard Rogers, head of the Hostage Rescue Team at the time of the siege.
The statements by the five officials came during inquiries conducted after the Ruby Ridge siege by a Justice Department task force and the FBI. The five all were in the Strategic Information Operations Center, or command center, on the fifth floor of FBI headquarters during the Ruby Ridge standoff.
Their statements, now in question, dealt with the shooting orders and who authorized them, sources familiar with the investigation said.
At Ruby Ridge, in a remote part of Idaho, Vicki Weaver, the wife of separatist Randy Weaver, was killed by an FBI sharpshooter as she stood unarmed behind a door of the couple's cabin a day after the siege began. The sharpshooter was firing at an armed male associate of Weaver as he ran to the cabin, the FBI inquiry concluded. The siege had begun Aug. 21 when federal officers attempted to arrest Weaver on weapons charges. A deputy marshal and Weaver's son were killed as the armed confrontation began and others were wounded. The siege ended 11 days after it began.
Freeh determined that the shooting was accidental and that the sharpshooter was firing under standard FBI deadly-force policy that permits agents to shoot to protect themselves or other innocent parties.
The suspension and criminal referral appear not to spell an end to the burgeoning controversy. Questions have been raised about the accuracy and completeness of the review done for Freeh on the siege by Charles Mathews III, now associate special agent in charge of the FBI's San Francisco division.
That review, based on a voluminous Justice Department task force report, was the basis for the disciplinary action Freeh took last Jan. 6 against 12 FBI employees, including Potts, over the Ruby Ridge incident.
The suspension and criminal inquiry involving the FBI officials could complicate a hearing on Ruby Ridge, scheduled for Sept. 6, by the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism. But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), subcommittee chairman and a former prosecutor, said that the actions would not put off the inquiry.
"This latest action just reinforces the need for full, fair and complete hearings," he said Friday.