NEW YORK – When Joel Klein left his post as head of New York City schools to join Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. last year, many observers expected his new gig as senior adviser would be lower-profile and better-paid. So far, it is definitely not the former.
As Murdoch and his son James were grilled by British lawmakers in the phone hacking scandal Tuesday, Klein was seated just behind them, next to Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng. He wore a dark suit; she a bright pink blazer. Deng stole the show when she leaped up to slap a comedian who tried to toss a pie in the elder Murdoch's face. Klein started to stand up during the commotion, then plopped back down as she let loose a smack.
Despite his deference to Deng, Klein's prominent placement in the video, which was carried live around the world by television networks, was noteworthy. The former assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton has become a key player in the scandal roiling London.
Klein's supporters say his experience makes him uniquely qualified to handle a crisis that has shaken confidence in government, law enforcement and the press in Britain and could reach across the Atlantic. Ten people have been arrested, a famous newspaper was suddenly closed and Murdoch was forced to abandon a bid to take over a lucrative broadcast network.
A spokesman said Klein would not be available for an interview for this story. When he announced last year he was accepting the job with Murdoch, he said, "I've long admired News Corporation's entrepreneurial spirit and Rupert Murdoch's fearless commitment to innovation."
Stateside, the FBI is conducting a preliminary inquiry into an allegation that journalists from the now-shuttered tabloid News of the World sought to hack into the phones of 9/11 victims. Lawmakers have raised questions about whether New York-based News Corp. could face legal action here if allegations of bribing police for stories turn out to be true.
As the investigations move forward, Klein will be at the helm of a committee tasked with addressing the matter internally. Its mandate remains somewhat murky. In a July 18 statement, News Corp. said the Management and Standards Committee would cooperate with investigators and "lay the foundation for future standards" at News International, the company's British newspaper wing. The committee will be headed by commercial lawyer Lord Grabiner, answer directly to Klein and conduct its own inquiries "where appropriate."
It's a big change from last summer, when Klein was battling the New York teachers' union and parent groups over charters and school closures. But rancor is a common thread.
"He doesn't back down from a fight," said Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "He's the kind of guy you'd want in a foxhole with you."
Besides a brief stint as a teacher while in law school, Klein had no background in education when he was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to head the nation's largest school system in 2002. The New York City native was a lawyer in Washington for 20 years and joined the Clinton administration as deputy counsel in the early 1990s. He was best known for leading the Justice Department's antitrust case against Microsoft that eventually led to changes in how the company sells its Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser.
In 2001, he jumped to Bertelsmann Inc., an international media company, as CEO. But Bloomberg quickly lured him back to public service, despite the challenges that the sprawling school system presented, which included poor test scores and high dropout rates.
His restructuring of the school system was jarring to some. But the bold moves, introduction of data-driven management and his well-publicized support of charter schools gained him nationwide recognition. He was called a transformational figure in the vanguard of educational reform and his name was floated as a possible candidate for national education secretary.
Wolfson called him "the most successful schools chancellor in the city's history." In eight years he closed 91 schools, opened 474 new ones and ended so-called social promotion for failing students. He sparred frequently with the teachers' union.
Klein often touted test scores as evidence of his success, but shortly before he stepped down state education officials said student progress was overstated because the tests had become easier. His tenure also earned him the enmity of detractors who called him brusque and uncaring.
"He's a bulldog with very little concern about public opinion and legal and ethical commitments to our kids," said Leonie Haimson, who leads a parent group called Class Size Matters. "He's very single-minded and aggressive."
Friends said Klein's breadth of vision would be a plus in untangling the strands of the phone-hacking scandal. The scandal had simmered for years but boiled over on July 4 with allegations that News of the World journalists had hacked into the voicemail of a murdered schoolgirl and deleted messages, leading her family to believe she was still alive.
"Murdoch could not find a better person with the required triangle of disciplines needed for this task: outstanding legal skills, substantial political experience and media savvy," said Washington lawyer Lanny J. Davis, who served as special counsel to Clinton.
Douglas Melamed, now general counsel at Intel, was Klein's deputy at the Justice Department. As a boss, Klein was smart and demanding — he wouldn't tolerate yes-men — but he maintained a sense of humor, Melamed said.
The two had breakfast in New York before he started at News Corp. Melamed disputed the notion that Klein was seeking a less grueling position at News Corp., where he had been hired to develop business strategies for the growing educational technology market.
"I don't think a slow pace would be something that Joel would look forward to in any context," Melamed said. "I certainly didn't have the sense that he was trying to ease into retirement with his new position."