FORTUNE—For investigator Louis Freeh, Penn State appears to be the case that just won’t die.
In advance of two long interviews with Fortune for its story “Louis Freeh, Private Eye,” in the magazine’s August 12 issue, Freeh cautioned that he would not be able to discuss anything relating to that case. But once he sat down with Fortune, Freeh opened up about it more than once.
The former FBI director, who is now chairman of his own investigative firm, was hired by Pennsylvania State University’s board of directors in 2011 to look into how school officials handled the actions of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was later convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys.
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Freeh’s report, released in July 2012, found that “the most powerful leaders at the University” — university president Graham Spanier, senior VP of finance and business Gary Schultz, the late head football coach Joe Paterno, and athletic director Tim Curley — “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities, the University’s Board of Trustees, the Penn State community, and the public at large.”
Over a year later, the fallout from the Freeh Report is still being felt. Paterno’s family, in particular, has responded aggressively. In February 2013 the family, which had hired former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh as an expert, released its own report that called Freeh’s findings “a rush to injustice” with “inaccurate and unfounded” parts.
Another expert hired by the Paternos, former FBI agent James Clemente, argues that Freeh’s investigation was incomplete in its understanding of “nice-guy offenders,” “compliant victimization,” and “grooming,” which are all concepts that relate to Sandusky’s behavior. Had there been someone taking those into account, Clemente contends, Freeh’s team could not have found Paterno or the other PSU officials at fault. “Although he said this was an independent investigation, what we got was basically a position paper,” Clemente tells Fortune. “It’s not a neutral look at the facts … It’s taking everything in the worst possible light as opposed to looking at all the possible explanations.”
In addition to the actions taken by Paterno’s family, this month former PSU President Graham Spanier filed notice of a defamation lawsuit against Freeh.
Clearly, the Penn State assignment continues to dog Freeh. Then again, Randall Bodner, a former assistant U.S. attorney who runs the securities litigation practice of law firm Ropes & Gray and once investigated the violent Medellin drug cartel, says, “My impression is that people who complain an investigation was too speedy are people who have a vested interest in disagreeing with the outcome.”
Below is an edited transcript of Freeh’s responses to Fortune’s questions relating to Penn State.
Can you walk me through your process when you begin a new investigation?
The first step is really getting the commitment and the cooperation and buy-in of the client. And if they’re really in trouble, you’ll generally get it. We want to make sure that the client is going to be completely transparent to us, cooperative, and if we think that’s not going to happen, we probably don’t even get to the first step.
What was that conversation like, with Penn State, when they first hired you?
We agreed to do it, but the condition was, “We will give it to you at the same time we put it on the Internet.” The reason for that was to ensure the independence of the product, both for the investigator, but also, to its credit, the board.
What compelled you to issue a response to the Paterno family’s response?
My practice has always been not to have press conferences, not to defend what we did or explain it. It’s just not my nature. The exception at Penn State was it was the former Attorney General of the United States [Dick Thornburgh]. They were fairly serious allegations, and we respectfully but factually just put down a response to that. But that was a very unusual exception to my normal rule.
Some of the criticism has been that you were too fast. Can you talk about that?
It’s a truism that you can investigate anything forever … We do thorough work, but we also do what’s necessary and sufficient to be thorough, but not excessive. And we complete it.
Many times we finish things early. The Penn State investigation, we decided when it was completed. Part of our goal was we wanted to complete it thoroughly, but we also wanted to complete it before the school year started. We wanted the report done, to the board, before thousands of young men and women came back to school.
Could we have done another 50 interviews? Of course. Could we have done another six months of work? Yes. But we felt we had all the necessary facts that the board needed to make their decisions. We had our recommendations — some of which we had already given the board much earlier and are already being implemented.
Do you expect and prepare for criticism in cases like Penn State, cases that are obviously being scrutinized and that you know will be widely discussed?
We assume that everything we put our name to is going to be scrutinized and criticized — and it should be. That’s the nature of our work. Our focus has to be a bulletproof product. Whether it’s under the radar or on 1010 News in 10 minutes.
When we were writing the Penn State report, one of my investigators said, “Do you realize we’re going to have, like, 500 English professors reading this for grammar? Quotation marks, colons, semicolons …” and I said, “I hadn’t thought of that!” That’s a jocular way of saying we very much appreciate and anticipate the scrutiny, and our huge anxiety is always that we’re going to get some facts wrong. If you said to me, “What keeps you up at night?” In any of these cases, it’s that I’m going to get the facts wrong, or I’m going to miss some huge piece of this case or witness. And the response by the adverse party is going to be, “Great report, Freeh, but why didn’t you talk to X or you didn’t see or comment on this email.” And that’s an occupational hazard of what we do.
And what about the criticism of the Penn State report specifically?
What I was very pleased about with respect to our Penn State report is although there was criticism, there was not one disputed fact. There was criticism about the interpretations, but nobody said, “You missed this email, or this fact is wrong.” That for us was the most important result.
On a personal level, has the criticism bothered you?
Not really. No. I mean, if I put myself in the shoes of the family, I’ve got six kids, I can imagine how they would feel if their father was criticized or alleged to have done certain things … I don’t take it personal.
With cases in which you determine wrongdoing by specific individuals, do you worry about your report hurting people?
You always worry about the impact of your report — on somebody’s liberty, their family, their welfare. You always are worried about the impact and the fallout and the injury and the harm and the liability. Even to bad people … You always worry about the collateral damage.
With Penn State specifically, has it been hard to see?
No. We had a huge amount of emotional feelings for the victims. Which is one of the reasons why we did the one press conference — we had to do one press conference, but it wasn’t anything I wanted to talk about ever again.
Was Penn State your hardest investigation? If not, what was?
It’s a very clear answer, but I can’t tell you what it is. It was a bunch of government folks, it was actually a pro bono case. It was not Penn State.
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