Robert Mardian; Attorney Caught Up in Watergate Scandal

Robert C. Mardian, left, takes the oath of office from Justice Potter Stewart. Attorney General John N. Mitchell and Mardian's wife Dorothy are at center.
Robert C. Mardian, left, takes the oath of office from Justice Potter Stewart. Attorney General John N. Mitchell and Mardian's wife Dorothy are at center. (1970 Photo By Ken Feil -- The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006

Robert C. Mardian, 82, the attorney for President Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President whose conviction of conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Watergate scandal was overturned on appeal, died of lung cancer July 17 at his vacation home in San Clemente, Calif.

Mr. Mardian, a former assistant attorney general, consistently denied that he was involved in Nixon administration attempts to cover up its involvement in the break-in and attempted bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters office at the Watergate complex June 17, 1972. He was assigned to handle the legal issues growing out of the break-in, he testified during his 1974 trial, but he said he didn't know about the break-in before it happened. He also testified that former attorney general John N. Mitchell admitted approving a $250,000 budget for G. Gordon Liddy, who led the team of burglars.

Mr. Mardian testified that he was golfing on the West Coast when he learned of the break-in from Nixon's campaign aide, Jeb Stuart Magruder. According to his testimony, he told Magruder: "Burglary is bad enough. You might get away with it -- boys will be boys. But bugging is disastrous."

Others testified that he was key in getting the Watergate burglars released from jail before it was discovered how deeply the administration was involved in the crime, but Mr. Mardian said that was impossible, given his location and the difference in time zones.

Mr. Mardian was sentenced to 10 months to three years on a single count of conspiracy. In the same trial, Mitchell and White House aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman were also convicted. Another campaign attorney, Kenneth W. Parkinson, was acquitted.

Mr. Mardian, a balding, gravel-voiced and dour-faced man, had unsuccessfully tried to avoid testifying at the trial on the grounds of attorney-client privilege. Upon the verdict, The Washington Post reported that he "seemed stunned. . . . Mardian seemed devastated by the jury verdict against him and sat glued to his seat in the courtroom until it was almost empty, apparently trying to compose himself."

The U.S. Court of Appeals in 1976 said Mr. Mardian should have been given a separate trial because his attorney of first choice became ill after the trial began and because of his more limited role in the crime. Rather than retrying him, the special prosecutor dropped the charge.

By late 1972, he had left public life, and except for his trial and an appearance at Mitchell's funeral in 1988, he had mostly stayed out of the spotlight since.

Mr. Mardian had been a powerful figure in Washington, described at the time as "one of the most visible and vocal spokesmen for law and order" in the Nixon administration. "You talk of wearing flags in lapels -- this guy would have sewn a flag on his back if they'd let him," a Justice Department colleague told The Post in 1973.

At the Justice Department, he was in charge of reviving the Internal Security Division, which tapped phones of reporters and launched investigations of alleged subversives. He also led the probe of the leak and publication of the top-secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers.

The FBI, in a two-year probe of the leak, had surreptitiously tape recorded reporters, White House aides and others. Mr. Mardian had custody of transcripts of those tapes, and he passed them along to Ehrlichman in the White House. The transcripts later went missing.

Mr. Mardian told the Senate Select Watergate Committee in 1973 that four days after the Watergate burglary, Liddy told him that he was acting on the "express authority of the president of the United States with the assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency." That was the first time, Mr. Mardian said, that he learned of the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

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