Harry L. Freeman, a top executive at American Express who publicly claimed responsibility for an investigation in the 1980s that tarnished the reputation of a rival banker, died June 6 at his home in the Montgomery County, Md., town of Somerset. He was 79.
He had complications from multiple systems atrophy, a degenerative neurological disorder.
Freeman, a Harvard Law School graduate with years of executive experience, joined American Express in 1975 as vice president for government relations. He became executive vice president for corporate affairs and communications, overseeing the firm's public relations departments and philanthropic initiatives. Freeman was on the cusp of retiring in 1989 when he emerged in news headlines in connection with American Express's unsavory investigation of a potential rival.
The reputed competitor was Edmond Safra, an international banker with Middle Eastern and Latin American clients. In 1983, American Express had purchased a Swiss bank from Safra for $550 million and absorbed the operation into the firm.
After a falling out with American Express executives, Safra resigned and agreed not to start a competing bank until 1988.
When American Express executives became suspicious that Safra had violated his "non-compete" pledge, Freeman was asked to lead an investigation to prove the violation, news accounts said at the time.
According to a Wall Street Journal article, investigators under Freeman took part in a smear campaign against Safra and planted stories in newspapers, linking the banker to the Mafia, South American cocaine cartels and the Iran-Contra affair.
Freeman maintained that the people he oversaw went beyond their orders in the course of the investigation and that the effort to discredit Safra was unauthorized.
In July 1989, American Express publicly apologized to Safra and donated $8 million to charities of his choice. Freeman publicly accepted responsibility for the investigation and quietly retired in early 1990.