President Ronald Reagan (right) swears in FBI Director Judge William Sessions. Sessions died at age 90 in his San Antonio home on Friday. Credit: Diana Walker//The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Judge William Sessions, who died here Friday at the age of 90, was an extraordinary man. 

He was, 30 years ago, the first FBI director to take on the racism and sexism that had been baked into the bureau from its founding by longtime director J. Edgar Hoover.

He was also, 27 years ago, the first FBI director to get fired. Those two things are likely not entirely unrelated. 

Appointed a U.S. attorney by President Richard Nixon and a federal district judge, first for El Paso and then San Antonio, by President Gerald Ford, he earned a reputation as a gentleman, tough but fair.

In its obituary The Washington Post resurrected a quote from the late civil rights lawyer Maury Maverick Jr., who represented Vietnam draft resisters in front of Sessions in the 1970s.

“His style is not to bully,” Maverick said. “But if you are a crook and stick your neck in a noose, he will hang you and smile like Jesus while he’s doing it.”

While he was considered a “straight arrow” as a judge and a “boy scout” during his six years as the FBI director, he was not always sensitive to appearances. In 1982 he presided over the five-week trial of Charles Harrelson for the 1979 assassination of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr., despite the fact that he was a pallbearer and gave the eulogy at Wood’s funeral. The trial took place in the round federal courthouse at Hemisfair that by that time had already been named for Wood.

As FBI director, Sessions inherited discrimination lawsuits from black and Hispanic agents. His response was to negotiate rather than to fight, raising the hackles of some of the old Hoover guard as he instituted policies to promote the recruitment and promotion of minorities and women. He also modernized FBI use of DNA and fingerprints and won higher pay for agents.

Sessions annoyed some high officials in President George H.W. Bush’s administration for not being partisan enough. He also drew public ire for the FBI’s handling of a fatal shootout in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the Waco siege of the Branch Davidian compound. Then came an investigation and brutal report by Attorney General William Barr that would lead to Sessions’ firing after President Bill Clinton came into office. Yes, that Bill Barr. 

The report came two days after Sessions announced the FBI would investigate whether Justice Department officials misled a federal judge regarding a bank fraud case involving loans to Iraq. It seems Barr has more appetite for investigations when they might help his boss than when they might hurt him. 

It turned out for all his numerous good points Sessions had a weakness. He was something of a chiseler. Because of this he gave Barr and FBI old-timers rope to hang him, even if it amounted to a treasure trove of relatively cheap charges.

The investigation charged that Sessions took his wife on pleasure trips at the public’s expense, justified by ginned-up meetings with local business leaders. Sessions also was found to have placed a briefcase with an unloaded gun in the trunk of the limousine that carried him to and from work. He thought that made him a lawman on duty rather than a government executive required to pay income tax on the value of a chauffeured daily commute. Most substantially, the investigation found he charged the government nearly $10,000 for an unnecessary “security fence” around his Washington home that met his wife’s aesthetic approval.

In my role as a columnist for the old San Antonio Light I had a glancing encounter with the controversy. I had obtained a membership directory of the Club at Sonterra and was interested to find that nearly every federal and state district judge in town was a member. Including Bill Sessions.

A brief inquiry turned up the fact that U.S. District Judge Adrian Spears, by then retired, had been chosen by oilman Tom Turner as president of the new country club he had built. Apparently to entice lawyers to join, Spears offered free memberships to judges.

I decided to call Sessions, then the FBI director, about it. My memory is that it was on a Saturday morning, but whenever it was I was surprised to quickly get him on the phone. He was not defensive. He congenially confirmed that he had the free membership. He said Spears had sent out invitations, and that Spears was such a man of honor that it would have felt like an insult to reject it.

I told him the reason I asked was that the IRS had told me that if you get something because of your job you have to pay income tax on the value of it. Given the annual dues of a club such as Sonterra, the taxes could easily reach into four figures. I’ve long remembered his response.

“Now you’ve made me swallow my coffee hard,” he said. 

I then explained that the IRS had also told me that if you didn’t use something like a country club membership, then it had no value to you and you didn’t owe taxes.

He told me, with audible relief, that he didn’t play golf and had used the membership only to take his wife to dinner at the club once or twice. So it had no value. Almost. 

I would later run across a document in which Sessions listed evidence that he was still a resident of Texas in order to avoid certain Washington-area taxes. One piece of evidence: his membership in the Sonterra country club.

This trait in Sessions might not have led to his dismissal but for the fact that it – together with his difficult wife, Alice, who was cited in the 161-page ethics report as ordering FBI agents to do personal tasks for her – provided the ammunition his enemies inside and outside the FBI could use to bring him down. 

In addition, by the time the newly elected Clinton fired Sessions, who refused to resign, he had to withdraw his first two nominations for attorney general. One had hired an undocumented immigrant as a nanny and both had failed to pay required taxes for their nannies. From today’s vantage point, it was a special time.

Having suffered the shame of being fired, Sessions played an admirable public role later in life. He provided pro bono legal services for a number of death row inmates and publicly opposed the executions of some who had been provided exceedingly bad legal defense. He also worked on issues of international human rights.

William Sessions was a good man with a weakness. Most of us should aspire to as much. 

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.