Questions the Ervin Committee Should Ask

by Walter Pincus | September 8, 1973

IN ANY congressional investigation, particularly one ranging as broadly as the Ervin Select Senate Committee to Investigate the 1972 Presidential Election, there are bound to be loose ends — conflicts in testimony that never get resolved, leads to other witnesses who never are called to testify, and facts relating to events or activities that are important but not directly related to the main substance of the inquiry and thus never fully developed. With the Ervin committee beginning to gear up for its final series of public hearings, it is worth reviewing a few of these loose ends.

Who is going to investigate the Nixon White House fund? Sometime during 1969 a lawyer representing an association of individuals gave $100,000 in cash to the Nixon White House. Who it was in the Nixon hierarchy that received the money is still not publicly known, nor is the identity of the group that made the contribution. What is known, however, is that the money did not go to the Republican National Committee or some other regular political organization. Rather it was added to some $1.1 million in cash which, under orders from White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, had been stashed in safe deposit boxes in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Newport Beach, California. That cash fund (plus another $570,000 in checking accounts in New York) was held as a giant Nixon fund, available for special use by the White House —as distinguished from the Republican Party — on the argument that the money originally had been given for the nomination of Richard Nixon and not his ultimate election in 1968.

Information about the fund has come out in a piecemeal way. During a recent deposition hearing Herbert Kalmbach, formerly the President's personal lawyer and the man who acted as trustee and disbursing officer for the White House fund, disclosed for the first time that between 1969 and 1971, a total of $300,000 in cash was added to the fund. Along with the one $100,000 donation in 1969, Kalmbach said four separate cash contributions totaling $153,000 were added in 1970 and two more totaling $47,000 came in 1971. Under questioning from the lawryers representing the Democratic National Committee, Kalmbach refused to identify any of the donors except to maintain that they were not corporations. Kalmbach was not asked if donations other than cash were also added to the fund, but some may have been. When, in February 1972, the residual $915,000 in the fund was turned over to the Nixon reelection committee, the checking account portion had grown by $110,000 to $680,000.

In the coming months either the Ervin committee or some other congressional body should inquire as to the source of these funds. The White House heretofore has not been thought of as a political committee — at least not under current legal definitions. And the President is not required by any law now on the books to make a separate filing with the General Accounting Office under the campaign fund reporting provisions of the election laws. Yet a good portion of the money disbursed from this Nixon fund went for political purposes. In 1969, $20,000 went into the New Jersey

gubernatorial campaign of Republican William Cahill; in 1970 $400,000 went to support Albert Brewer, George Wallace's primary opponent in the Alabama governor's race; and in 1971 $100,000 went to the Kentucky gubernatorial race of Louie Nunn. Another $100,000, according to Kalmbach, went to former New York policeman Tony Ulasewicz who was performing private investigations of political figures at the direction of the White House; $35,000 to $40,000 went to Donald Segretti for activities he undertook at the direction of White House aides during the Democratic presidential primaries; and another $36,000 in cash went to Murray Chotiner in 1971 for what Kalmbach described as "political campaign work." Finally some $350,000, Kalmbach said, went for polling expenses.

Thus what this was was a giant personal political fund run out of the White House with apparently no legal requirement for public reporting because no one ever conceived of a President or his staff engaging in such an activity. There is good reason to believe that Haldeman expected to resurrect the fund after the 1972 election. In April 1972 he had $350,000 in cash sent to the White House —and eventually put in an Alexandria, Va. safe deposit box. That fund at various times has been described as 1968 surplus or polling money, both euphemisms for a discretionary pile of money to be drawn upon for whatever projects the President or his top staff wanted undertaken.

On June 17,1972, who called G. Gordon Liddy and told him to talk to Attorney General Richard Kleindienst? The activities of June 17, the Saturday that the Nixon campaign organization and the White House first learned of the break-in and arrests at the Watergate, set the pattern for the cover-up. How and when the key figures first heard of Watergate — and what they learned — should have been a main focus of the Ervin committee's questioning. It wasn't. Some witnesses were asked in detail, others were not. One, Haldeman, was let off with giving the most unbelievable of answers — he could not remember how or when he first heard of Watergate. Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen and his boss. Attorney General Kleindienst, knew by 8 am on June 17, and both realized it represented a tough political as well as legal problem. Ironically the Ervin committee questioners who drew out that information failed to ask who, if anyone, those two gentlemen called that morning —particularly White House or Nixon committee officials.

One major unexplored event stands out on that day. Campaign manager John Mitchell, his deputy Jeb Stuart Magruder and Mitchell's two chief assistants, Fred LaRue and Robert Mardian, all were in Los Angeles. Magruder was called away from breakfast to take a call from Liddy who, he testified, told him of the arrest of the Nixon committee security chief, James W. McCord and others. During that hectic morning in California it was decided a call should be placed to Liddy to have him call Kleindienst. There is disagreement over two main points however. Magruder testified Mardian was to call to have Liddy see if McCord could be released from jail. Mardian testified Magruder reported that Liddy said those arrested "all had fake ID cards . . . and that although they were incarcerated, the identities of the accused were not known." Mardian denied, however, that he made the call that Magruder alluded to or that a call was made.

LaRue testified the decision was made that someone should phone Kleindienst and ask him to call Washington police chief Jerry Wilson "to see what details we could find out about the situation." LaRue did not know for sure who made the call, but he thought it might have been Mardian. Mitchell during his testimony ridiculed the idea that he would have Liddy used as a go between for himself or Mardian when the man they wanted to reach was Kleindienst—a close personal friend of both of them. Mitchell, however, had no memory of any such call being made.

A key participant in the incident, a man who was with Liddy in Washington, was Powell Moore. A member of the Nixon committee's public relations staff and former PR man with the Justice Department, Moore knew Mardian, Kleindienst and Mitchell from his days at Justice. Moore called Mardian on Sunday June 18 to tell him that he and Liddy went to Burning Tree Country Club outside Washington on June 17 to speak to Kleindienst. Liddy had told Moore, according to Moore's account, that he had been called by Mitchell and told to have Kleindienst get the Watergate burglars released from jail. Moore said Kleindienst waved Liddy away, said he didn't want to hear of the incident, and continued playing golf.

When Kleindienst testified, he recalled that Liddy showed up at Burning Tree with Moore and asked to speak to him privately. They went to a corner of the men's locker room. When Liddy said he had a message from Mitchell on the Watergate affair, he, Kleindienst, stopped him from talking and sent him away. Kleindienst then put in a call to Mitchell in California and, reaching Mardian, told him to keep Liddy away from him; Kleindienst added that the men arrested in the Watergate would be treated like all other prisoners.

Why all the interest in this event? It inay have been the first —and most desperate —attempt at a cover-up an obstruction of justice. If McCord could have been gotten out of jail before he was identified as a Nixon committee employee, there would have been no direct link to the Nixon organization—and remember Liddy had told Magruder of the false IDs. Kleindienst never told anyone at the time of the approach by Liddy and Moore. If he had, FBI agents would have immediately questioned both Moore and Liddy. Moore, who had obseryed Liddy shredding documents that June 17 morning, might have come forth with that information. As it was Moore was not interviewed by the bureau until July 24, well after Liddy's role had been discovered by the investigators.

Finally there is the question of why none of those who say the call was legitimate will step forward to say he made it. Certainly a call was made. It's just one of the unresolved pieces of conflicting testimony, but an important one for it could have been the first and most blatant cover-up attempt.

What was discussed about Watergate on June 20,1972 in the 2-hour-and-15-minute morning meeting President Nixon had with his two chief aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, just three days after the arrests at the Democratic national headquarters? Ehrlichman and Haldeman had just come from a 90-minute meeting with campaign manager Mitchell, then-Attorney General Kleindienst and White House Counsel John Wesley Dean III. The topic at that meeting had been Watergate. In fact it was the first face-to-face discussion these major figures in the affair had after the arrests. Mitchell already knew of the participation of two former White House aides, Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, as well as his own campaign deputy, Jeb Magruder. By then he also had been told that there had been a prior break-in and that a bug had been in operation on at least one telephone. Dean, who had questioned both Liddy and Magruder by this time, had supposedly briefed Ehrlichman. Haldeman had talked to his political aide, Gordon Strachan and according to the latter had asked that Strachan's files be cleaned. Kleindienst had been approached on June 17 by Liddy, who allegedly said Mitchell had sent him to get McCord out of jail.

Thus the participants at the early morning, June 20 meeting knew quite a bit—more than the President has ever acknowledged knowing prior to April 17, 1973. How much did Haldeman and Ehrlichman tell the President that day? Special prosecutor Archibald Cox is seeking the tape of that Oval Office meeting on June 20 saying, "it should show the extent of the knowledge of any illegal activity by the participants [in the meetings] or any effort to conceal the truth from the [President]." Later on June 20th, according to LaRue, he and Mardian briefed Mitchell about a long interview they

had had that afternoon with Liddy. During that session Liddy told them of some activities of the White House plumbers, including the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. At 6:08 pm that evening Mitchell talked to the President for four minutes. Cox is also seeking this taped conversation. The special prosecutor says "this apparently was the first direct contact after the break-in between [the President] and Mitchell, so what Mitchell reported may be highly material." Mitchell testified that during this conversation he apologized to the President for what had happened, but knew nothing more than that five men had been arrested. That was not true as to his own knowledge. As subsequent testimony proved, he knew much more. Why did he mislead the committee? And did he mislead the President?

Disclosure of the substance of those two June 20 events, the presidential morning meeting and the late afternoon phone call, could go a long way toward establishing what the President knew and what he wanted to know. For by the next day, June 21, plans for the cover-up began to be put together. 

This article appeard in the September 8, 1973 issue of the magazine.

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