He endured eight years in a government post he never wanted, then suffered through five years as the target of an independent counsel who never charged him with a crime.
Such was the legacy of Samuel R. Pierce Jr., who died Tuesday at age 78 in a hospital outside Washington.
A courtly man who was a lawyer and former municipal judge in Manhattan, Pierce was the only African American in the Cabinet of President Ronald Reagan and the only member to serve through all eight years of the administration.
Friends said Friday that Pierce never wanted to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and told those who were circulating his name after Reagan’s 1980 election that he would decline such an appointment. But he reluctantly accepted the post in hopes of someday realizing his highest ambition, appointment to the Supreme Court, associates said.
Washington attorney Paul Perito, a longtime friend who represented Pierce during congressional and independent-counsel investigations at HUD, said the protracted inquiries and their aftermath seemed to accelerate the diabetes and cardiovascular disease that afflicted Pierce. He also had suffered a recent stroke.
“He was a kind and respectful man who had great sensitivity to people, whether they could help him or not,” Perito recalled. “He had wonderful listening skills that I seldom found in persons of high office.”
Theodore W. Kheel, a prominent New York labor negotiator and former law partner of Pierce, called him “an exceptional man with unusually impressive credentials. I was terribly unhappy with what happened to him in Washington.”
An investigation into corruption in HUD’s low-income housing programs--which began months after Pierce left office in 1989--resulted in prison terms for a few former HUD officials and outside consultants who were convicted of paying or receiving gratuities in return for favoring clients of GOP consultants. But no evidence of wrongdoing by Pierce was ever produced.
Independent counsel Arlin M. Adams followed up on congressional hearings and a scathing report by the agency’s inspector general. The focus was on a program intended to provide rent-subsidy grants to developers to improve substandard housing for poor families. The program was promptly suspended by Jack Kemp, Pierce’s successor under President George Bush.
Elaborating on his decision not to bring criminal charges against Pierce, Adams said he took into consideration Pierce’s failing health and a written statement from Pierce that acknowledged responsibility for the scandal.
Pierce said that “my own conduct failed to set the proper standard” at HUD.
“On a number of occasions,” he said, “I met or spoke privately with personal friends who were paid to obtain funding for [moderate-rehabilitation] projects . . . which created the appearance that I endorsed my friends’ efforts and sent signals to my staff that such [consultants] should receive assistance.”
Friends said Pierce’s poor management of HUD was understandable. For example, Kheel said, “Sam was a distinguished lawyer [but] he was not a distinguished administrator.”
By nature a reticent man, he kept such a low profile that he was known as “Silent Sam.” At a White House reception for big-city mayors late in the Reagan administration, Pierce shook hands with the president, only to be greeted with “Hello, Mr. Mayor. It’s nice to see you.”
Pierce told an embarrassed Reagan, “I’m a member of your Cabinet, Mr. President.”
Born Sept. 8, 1922, in the New York City suburb of Glen Cove, N.Y., he served in World War II before earning degrees from Cornell University in 1947 and Cornell Law School in 1949. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Cornell and was a halfback on the football team.
A lifelong Republican, he got his introduction to Washington in 1955, when he was appointed assistant to the secretary of labor in the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.
In the 1960s, Pierce served briefly as a municipal judge and became the first black partner in Kheel’s New York law firm, where he specialized in labor, tax and antitrust law and argued both civil and criminal cases.
Pierce appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court as a member of the legal team defending the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., other black ministers and the New York Times in a landmark dispute. That case, known as New York Times vs. Sullivan, established limits on the use of defamation lawsuits.
Three years later, in 1964, Pierce helped found Freedom National Bank, the first predominantly black-managed bank in New York state.
As a prominent black Republican with banking experience, Pierce was tapped by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to become general counsel of the Treasury Department. In that role, he won the gratitude of thousands of aerospace workers in Southern California in 1971.
He and Treasury Secretary John B. Connally successfully lobbied for congressional approval of a government-backed $250-million loan guarantee to keep then-Burbank-based Lockheed Aircraft Corp. afloat in 1971 after the bankruptcy of British-based Rolls Royce Ltd., which was manufacturing engines for a new Lockheed passenger aircraft, the L-1011.
Pierce is survived by his wife, Barbara Penn Wright, a New York physician, and a daughter, Victoria Wright.