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Ex-Morrison Knudsen Chairman Took Extreme Security Precautions

With shark-like precision, the white and gray Suburban glided into view, a chase car full of bodyguards in tow as it pulled up to a downtown Boise office building.

The burly guards - guns peeking from leather holsters - stormed out of the smaller car to secure the area.

The Suburban’s doors opened, revealing a suntanned couple behind the tinted windows. She was blond, her gold jewelry glinting in the sun. He wore a red, argyle sweater to conceal a bulletproof vest.

But this wasn’t the U.S. president or a foreign potentate headed for a Sun Valley ski weekend. It was former Morrison Knudsen Chairman Bill Agee and his wife, Mary. Going shopping.

“Everyone just assumed they were paranoid,” recalled the spouse of one ex-worker, the Idaho Statesman reported. “And it was kind of a joke at MK, initially the flak jacket, the bulletproof vest. The common joke was, `Aim for the head.”’

Few revelations from the Agee regime are more bizarre or damning than the security precautions for the 57-year-old CEO and his wife during the six years he guided the Boise-based construction and transportation company to the edge of bankruptcy.

It included a bodyguard on company payroll who opened the Agees’ personal mail in search of bombs. Cameras hidden in birdhouses at the couple’s $650,000 home. High-tech workplace surveillance including videotaping employees in the dead of night. Wiretapping employees’ telephones.

The elaborate security precautions appeared to be a misguided attempt at controlling unhappy employees, said Alan Westin, a public law professor at Columbia University in New York and an expert on workplace privacy.

But employees tattled on their boss, slipping damaging corporate documents into the hands of the board of directors, leading to the Feb. 9 decision to force Agee’s resignation.

“I know it’s business, but why do they play around with people’s lives like they do?” asked Pete Even Jr. of Boise, who worked as the Agees’ personal bodyguard and general assistant for 2-1/2 years, starting in January 1991.

Dubbed “Pete the Great” by MK insiders, Even lived with the Agees on and off at their luxurious Pebble Beach, Calif., estate, shuttling back and forth into Boise on the company’s $21 million jet.

But Even wound up serving as the ultimate handyman for the couple made famous for their roles at Bendix Corp. in the juiciest office romance of the 1980s. He checked packages for bombs, fetched groceries and escorted their two young children to school and gymnastics classes.

Now 43, Even had no background in security work and he never carried a gun. But that did not matter to the Agees.

“I got the feeling that is just my size - intimidation,” said Even, who is 6‘3” and weighed 265 pounds at the time.

He earned $32,000 a year plus a bonus - all paid by the company under a 10-year oral contract he said he had with Agee himself.

By May 1993, Even was spending so much time in Pebble Beach the Agees asked him to sell his Boise home and move with his wife to the exclusive oceanside community.

But after the Agees suddenly posted an armed guard around the $3.4 million estate, Even began to wonder whether a real threat existed. When he demurred about staying in the line of fire, he was moved to a job at MK’s headquarters, washing dishes and doing other menial tasks.

Now he is suing his former boss over his claim that Agee reneged on the promise of 10 years’ employment.

Morrison Knudsen paid $48,706 to Concept Security of Mariana, Calif., for remote-controlled cameras, computers and other surveillance equipment for the Agees’ homes in Pebble Beach and Boise, and for the office of Mary Agee’s Nurturing Network, a counseling organization in Boise for single, pregnant women.

Guards monitored the comings and goings at the homes. A delivery person could press a buzzer at the Pebble Creek mansion, identify himself to a guard in Boise, then be “buzzed” admission to an outbuilding where a parcel could be left, Even said.

In 1993, Agee hired Boise Police Chief James Carvino to head up MK’s security force. Carvino was to “ensure the security of our employees and MK assets around the world,” Agee said at the time.

By spring 1994, however, Carvino’s work included authorizing a $2,500 cash advance for an MK security guard accompanying the Agees, their children and a nanny on an 11-day trip to Rome where Mary Agee unsuccessfully sought a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

The Agees’ show of bodyguards offended some Boise residents.

“I think there were people who were just put off by that,” said Carolyn Terteling, a Boise City Council member. “It was the perception they had of themselves that bothered people.”

“It sows the seeds of discord,” said Craig Cornish, a Colorado Springs employment attorney.

“Most employees don’t have much choice in the jobs that they hold. They sort of feel trapped and sort of feel they have no way to escape the surveillance.”

Acting CEO Stephen Hanks said the spying is over, the wiretapping equipment no longer is in place. But some employees remain unconvinced.

“It’s indicative of how afraid - how this security, this `thought police,’ affected people,” said one worker.

Tags: business