- Associated Press - Friday, August 17, 2018

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Amy Hess, the FBI’s top leader in Kentucky, said Friday that she worries the agency’s ability to carry out its mission could be damaged by any decline in public approval. The way to restore confidence among doubters is to focus on the job and “eventually this will pass,” she said.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters, Hess acknowledged “a lot has happened nationally” in the two years she’s been special agent in charge of the FBI in Kentucky. Hess, who is leaving soon for a high-level administrative job at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., didn’t delve into any FBI-involved controversies. But she expressed concern about public attitudes of the agency and how that affects its crime-fighting work.

“When we go knock on that door, when a juror is seated in a trial, what is their opinion of the FBI?” she said. “And has it been impacted by what they’ve heard perhaps on the national news?”

So far, she hasn’t seen any signs that it’s hindering FBI work, Hess said.

“I have not seen decreased cooperation,” she said. “I have not seen a decrease in our ability to get our jobs done. But I do worry about it. I worry about whether or not public opinion may impact our ability to execute our mission.”

The FBI has come under attack from some politicians including President Donald Trump, who in the past has called the FBI a biased institution.

The Republican president has been involved in a bitter feud with fired FBI director James Comey. And a longtime FBI agent who was removed from the Russia investigation over anti-Trump text messages was recently fired.

To overcome any public skepticism, the FBI needs to constantly reassure the public that it’s “committed to doing the right thing, regardless of politics, regardless of opinions,” Hess said.

“Right now, I think we’re going through a time where we need to just keep our head down and focus on the mission,” she said. “The same thing I tell our folks internally, focus on your work, focus on getting the job done and eventually this will pass. Your actions will speak louder than words. And eventually people will see that and we’ll get through the storm.”

As part of its public outreach, the FBI has a booth at this year’s Kentucky State Fair, she said.

“I want people to see us as real humans, not just the words ‘FBI’ on a news ticker,” she said.

Hess also recounted the most high-profile case in Kentucky during her tenure - the Eric Conn case. The flamboyant eastern Kentucky attorney disappeared to try to avoid prison for defrauding the government of more than $600 million in Social Security disability benefits. He was eventually caught at a Pizza Hut in Honduras.

“When he fled, it became incredibly important to our division … to find him, to bring him back and to make sure that he was held accountable for those crimes,” Hess, who became the public face in the FBI’s pursuit of Conn, said Friday.

Hess said she always thought he would be caught, but acknowledged it wasn’t easy. She credited his capture to “good old-fashioned police work,” but said investigators sifted through his communications with reporters and others while he was at large as they developed leads.

“Certainly by putting himself out there, by being so vocal about it, it didn’t help (him) but I don’t know I would say that it made a difference,” she said. “We would have found him anyway.”

Hess also emphasized the FBI’s efforts to assist Louisville police in combating the city’s high homicide rate during her tenure, and to work with state and local law enforcement to curtail the state’s opioid abuse epidemic.

Hess is leaving Kentucky to become executive assistant director of the FBI’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch. She said she hopes an announcement about her successor in Kentucky will come in several weeks.

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