Imagine that George W. Bush authorized a break-in of the John Kerry campaign headquarters to dig up dirt to use against his campaign.
Or, imagine that President Obama authorized the break-in of the Republican National Committee's headquarters in order to pilfer information to use against the Romney campaign.
Hard to envision,right?
But we all know that 40 years ago, on June 17, 1972, several of President Richard Nixon's henchmen, including G. Gordon Liddy, were arrested at the Watergate in Washington DC. They were burglarizing the Democratic National Committee headquarters offices at the time but had also committed other break-ins. The lead crooks were ex-CIA and FBI operatives.
The Watergate scandal led to Nixon's disgrace and resignation. Good riddance, I say. It's amazing such a crook could be elected not once, but twice. I guess the American people are pretty trusting souls.
Watergate also shamed the entire legal profession because it took a legion of lawyers to protect Nixon and his scammy ways. Nixon had a knack for collecting a real bunch of swindlers, with the exception of John W. Dean, who actually had a conscience.
These days, the legal community is shamed not by crooks and burglars (as much), but by awful T.V. ads in which modern-day snake oil salesmen posing as personal injury lawyers yell about gauranteeing plaintiffs cash money. Do accident victims really think these hucksters are the best injury trial attorneys?
But back to the Watergate legacy.
In 1972 and the years that followed, the Watergate coverup shoved virtually all lawyers to the gutter in the eyes of the public in spite of the reality that most legal practitioners were — and remain — honest and ethical
A June 2012 ABA Journal by Mark Curriden outlined just how many lawyers were implicated in the Watergate break-in, coverup, or related Nixon activities. Most of those individuals were convicted of misdemeanors or felonies, got immunity or were pardoned. Just check out how many prominent attorneys showed a complete lack of ethics and moral scruples before and during the Watergate debacle:
- Spiro T. Agnew – Nixon's own vice president until he resigned in 1973. Pled no contest to income tax evasion. Disbarred in Maryland. What a guy!
- Charles W. Colson – special counsel to Nixon. Pled guilty to obstruction of justice. Served time. Disbarred in Virginia and Washington, DC. Then became a born-again Christian.
- G. Bradford Cook – former chair of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. Resigned 10 weeks after taking office. Gave false testimony to a grand jury. Law license suspended for 3 years in Nebraska.
- John W. Dean III – White House counsel. Pled guilty to obstruction of justice. Disbarred in Virginia. Received kudos as a major whistleblower and contributing evidence that led to Nixon's downfall. Probably the only one who had a conscience before the prosecutors came calling.
- John D. Ehrlichman – assistant to President Nixon – domestic affairs. Convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, and perjury, and conspiracy in Daniel Ellsberg case. Disbarred in Washington. Complete lack of ethics, a loyal creepy dude indeed.
- Herbert W. Kalmbach – Nixon's personal lawyer. Convicted for illegal campaign activities. Law license suspended in California, then reinstated in 1977. Another Nixon protector.
- Richard G. Kleindiest – U.S. Attorney General. Took office five days before break-in at Watergate – June, '72. Convicted for withholding information from senate confirmation hearing. License suspended one month in DC. Censored in Arizona. Would you take this job just because Nixon fired the prior attorney general who would not do his bidding?
- Egil Krogh Jr. – a deputy assistant lawyer to the president. Recruited Liddy and Hunt, who carried out crimes and dirty tricks. Pled guilty to conspiracy to deprive Ellsberg's psychiatrist of his civil rights. Disbarred in Washington, license reinstated in 1980. Has turned his life around, we think.
- G. Gordon Liddy – general counsel to Nixon's reelection committee. Both a former prosecutor and FBI agent. Convicted of burglary and contempt of court. Disbarred in New York. Shameless lack of ethics. The only time you want to be locked in a room with him is if you are surrounded by mob hit men and you need protection. Spooky is an understatement.
- Robert C. Mardian – assistant attorney general on internal security. Had conviction on conspiracy to obstruct justice reversed. License suspended in California, later reinstated.
- John M. Mitchell – U.S. Attorney General. Former law partner of Nixon. Convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Disbarred in New York. If Nixon was a creep, Mitchell was his creep-de-camp.
- Richard M. Nixon – former president. Facing impeachment, he resigned. President Gerald Ford pardoned him. Disbarred in New York. The buck stopped with him. He never read the lawyer ethical rules and never had any.
- Harry L. Sears – chairman of Nixon reelection campaign in New Jersey. Granted immunity for cooperation in the Robert Vesco investigation. Law license suspended in New Jersey for 3 years.
- Donald H. Segretti – attorney for Nixon's reelection campaign. Pled guilty to three misdemeanors involving illegal campaign literature. Ran for judgeship in California, abandoned it after Watergate involvement became an issue. Still out there doing his thing.
Every one of these 14 lawyers was involved in some form of alleged criminal activity, though a few had convictions pardoned, overturned or reversed . Some had convictions reversed, several were granted immunity on several counts, but the bottom line is they all lost sight of which side of the law lawyers must stay on. Lawyers follow the law; they don’t break it.
In my view, the lessons of Watergate are that lawyers' ethical responsibilties are core attributes of practice, and when it comes to ethics, lawyers cannott trample over the line of what's legal.
When Nixon and his henchmen discussed in secret getting the goods on the Democratic opposition, which involved getting his hands on their written plans and strategies, do you think he had some idea the henchmen would need to commit a break-in under cover of darkness?
Lets see. Is an overnight burglary against the law? Hmmm …. We need to consult a lawyer on that one …. NOT.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.