04/09/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
A lot of prosecutors think 'tough' means running out and indicting everybody because the press wants it," says a respected New York criminal lawyer. "Paul Curran is tough enough not to indict when the facts don't warrant it." Curran's reputation for not rushing headlong to judgment may dismay a few of his fellow Republicans, but to Attorney General Griffin Bell it must have seemed a vital credential. It was Bell's uncomfortable obligation recently to name a special counsel to investigate some $7 million in questionable loans from Bert Lance's bank to President Carter's family peanut business. The soft-spoken Curran, who is a partner in a Park Avenue law firm, was his choice for the job.
The son of a Manhattan Republican leader who was a political confederate of Thomas E. Dewey, Curran was born and brought up in New York City. A devout Catholic, he graduated from Georgetown in 1953 and received his law degree from Fordham. Later he served as an assistant U.S. attorney ("Where else can you try a major case in federal court your first year out of law school") and acted as chairman of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's State Commission of Investigation. As U.S. attorney from 1973 to 1975, he personally prosecuted Mafia leader Carmine Tramunti and was responsible for the conviction of both Republican and Democratic politicians.
Some Republicans complained loudly because Curran, 46, was named "special counsel" not "special prosecutor" (like Leon Jaworski in the Watergate investigation). "It's the power that counts, and the responsibilities," Curran replies mildly. "I have total authority to hire people without consulting the Justice Department, and I have the access to the FBI that I want." (Bell says he avoided the term "prosecutor" because there is no evidence of criminal behavior at this point.) Sensing that her husband's role could be a historic one, Curran's wife, Barbara, has urged him to "record everything" that happens. Curran hopes the job will take less than a year. "The lesson of Watergate and every other investigation," he says, "is that people have to live within the law. It's an unchanging message."