The first arrest John Collingwood made as an FBI agent was the realization of a boyhood dream, even if it was a little less glamorous than he'd pictured it.
No international terrorists. No dangerous spies. No white-collar thieves or La Cosa Nostra crime bosses. No corrupt public officials.
It was hijackers. Trucks. Small trucks. They stole shrimp. It wasn't a very big case.
But, Mr. Collingwood says, that experience as a member of the FBI's major theft squad in Detroit taught him a big lesson. And he hopes to keep it in mind during his most recent assignment as the FBI's chief flak catcher.
`The real keepers of the image of the FBI are the agents on the street,' he says. `That's the story we want to tell, the story that the American public and the Congress needs to hear.'
`Cases are being solved by agents who continue to knock on doors and ask the right questions,' he says. `They're responsible for what the FBI has been and what it will become.'
Mr. Collingwood, a lawyer and 17-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, took over Thursday as inspector-in-charge of the new Office of Public Affairs and Congressional Services Office. Created by FBI Director William S. Sessions, the office combines two others--the Office of Public Affairs, headed by Thomas F. Jones (since named agent-in-charge of the FBI field office in Cleveland), and the Office of Congressional Services, formerly headed by Mr. Collingwood.
The appointment came as no surprise to those who work with Mr. Collingwood. Or to those who have known the Findlay, Ohio, native during his 12 years at FBI headquarters, where he also has served in the Legal Research Unit and as chief of the bureau's Civil Litigation Program.
Soft-spoken and articulate, Mr. Collingwood, 44, has kept his head down in the dog-eat-dog climate of bureau headquarters. He is one of a handful of FBI executives with immediate access to Mr. Sessions. As a special assistant to the director for two years, many believe he is one of Mr. Sessions' closest advisers.
`He has the director's ear, there's no question about that,' one high-ranking FBI official says. `But more importantly, he knows when to use it and knows better than to abuse it.'
`Genuinely likable and very charming,' is another FBI executive's assessment. `He is determined, tireless, shows great self-discipline and has honed a no-nonsense management style that works.'
That style may have been developed during his college days at Bowling Green University, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1970 from the School of Business. Or at the University of Toledo, where he got his law degree in 1975. Or at his family's Ford dealership in Ohio, where he worked for two years before entering law school.
In fact, he went to law school with the FBI in mind.
`I thought at the time that most everyone in the FBI was a lawyer and that it was the route to take if I wanted in the agency.' he says. `So I took it.'
The road to Washington began in 1975 at the FBI field office in Detroit, where he worked first on the major theft squad and later on the organized crime squad. (That first arrest in the great shrimp caper went down inside a brewery, but that's another story.)
In 1978, the bureau sent him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., a prestigious Pentagon facility. The school teaches more than a dozen languages to intelligence specialists and others, including the FBI. It is considered one of the most intense language courses in the country.
Mr. Collingwood's specialty was Cantonese, which he used on his next assignment at the FBI field office in Portland, Ore. He worked Asian gangs and foreign espionage cases. (Actually, he admits his first chance to use his newly acquired Cantonese came at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco.)
Two years later, Mr. Collingwood arrived in Washington. He was coaxed here by John Mintz, former assistant director of the FBI's Legal Counsel Division. Mr. Mintz, during a visit to the Portland field office, was looking for agent/lawyers to bolster his legal staff.
`It was a good opportunity for me and I didn't hesitate to take it,' recalls Mr. Collingwood, admitting that he and his wife, Mary Ann, also wanted to reduce the miles between them and their families in Ohio and Michigan.
`But I still miss being out in the field,' he adds. `That's something that's ingrained in all agents. Solving crimes is what it's all about, and that's the story we hope to tell.'
The Collingwoods live in Northern Virginia with son Mark, 10, and daughter Stephanie, 13.
In his spare time, Mr. Collingwood says, `I'm really into two things. My kids' sports--my life revolves around Little League and swimming--and the other thing is computers. You wouldn't expect a lawyer to be into computers, I guess, but I am.'
Nothing fancy, just a regular personal computer he uses with on-line services and various kinds of software.
At work, his office's tasks are to tell the news media and the public what the FBI does and why; prepare FBI publications; respond to inquiries; manage congressional relations; oversee FBI testimony before congressional committees; and provide Congress with information on FBI operations, guidelines and accomplishments.
There is one particular story that many expect John Collingwood to try to tell, although without much fanfare.
A longtime loyalist, he is a staunch defender of Mr. Sessions--who recently has come under fire from inside and outside the bureau. In answering questions, Mr. Collingwood often defers to comments and policy statements his boss has made.
`The director is extremely motivated to do more and to better serve the public with the same or fewer resources.
`The director is a firm believer that Congress and the American public have every right to know what the FBI is doing. * * *'
The defense is not contrite, nor does it appear to be planned. Mr. Collingwood believes Mr. Sessions' cheerful approach to problem solving is misinterpreted by critics as weakness or lack of interest.
`His record at the FBI is clear,' the public affairs chief says, `He has waded into some of the stickiest issues ever confronting the agency without hesitation.'
The media and others have questioned the FBI director's policies and management style. The most potentially damaging and divisive criticism, however, may be that coming from many of his own agents who are angry over what they see as moves to initiate a quota system in the hiring of minorities and women.
The predominantly white FBI Agents Association, which represents more than 60 percent of the FBI's 10,400 agents, is seeking a court order to force Mr. Sessions into revealing the contents of an agreement he signed in April with black agents. That agreement guarantees job assignments, promotions and training opportunities. Hispanic agents won a similar pact three years ago in a race discrimination lawsuit.
Female agents balked at a recent equal treatment. The women said they were `tired of the separatism and group interest that appears to be growing within the ranks of the FBI.'
Mr. Collingwood won't discuss allegations of a quota system, saying the matter involves pending litigation. He does say, though, that Mr. Sessions has not been afraid to take on extremely difficult issues.
`His view is that he'll do what has to be done and that the facts will speak for themselves.' Mr. Collingwood says, in his first official defense of the director.
Mr. Collingwood's efforts to tell the public and the media about the FBI and its accomplishments may be an easier task today than it was before. It's no secret that former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who wanted to name his own man as FBI director, often moved to control and limit the FBI's access to the media.
Mr. Thornburgh resigned in August to run unsuccessfully for a Senate seat from Pennsylvania. His successor, Attorney General William P. Barr, has not instituted similar constraints.
Mr. Collingwood has no comment on all this, except to say that his office will operate under `clear mandates' handed down by Mr. Sessions.
`Our job is to serve our customers. That includes the media, the public and Congress,' he says. `We are the servants of the American public, and it has every right to know what the FBI is doing.'