Watergate GOP Counsel, Gay Activist Sam Garrison

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

Samuel Alexander Garrison III, 65, who, as minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, defended President Richard Nixon in the 1974 impeachment hearings, died of leukemia May 27 at Friendship Healthcare Center in Roanoke.

Mr. Garrison, then 32, was the last-minute replacement chosen by the committee's 17 Republicans to present the minority view of the case against Nixon. With just days to prepare, he submitted a 41-page argument against impeachment.

"By all accounts, Sam Garrison did not exactly hit a home run," reporter William Greider wrote in The Washington Post on July 23, 1974. "But his performance satisfied the senior Republicans who wanted someone, for appearance's sake if nothing else, to argue the soft spots in the Judiciary Committee's evidence."

"The question," Mr. Garrison said at the time, "is whether the public interest would better be served or not served by the removal of the president."

The House Judiciary Committee passed the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice. Nixon resigned Aug. 8, 1974.

In the 33 years since that summer, Mr. Garrison divorced, went bankrupt, came out as a gay man, served time in prison for embezzlement and was disbarred. A former business partner conspired to kill him. He recovered his right to vote and his law license, and resumed his legal career.

Once described as a tough, highly partisan Nixon defender, Mr. Garrison joined the Democratic Party and became active in party politics, the gay rights movement and a hate crimes task force in southwestern Virginia. He was appointed in 2003 to the Virginia Council on Human Rights by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

A short, stocky man whose dark good looks seemed to accentuate his youth, Mr. Garrison graduated from the University of Virginia and then from its law school in 1966. He immediately became an assistant commonwealth's attorney in his home town of Roanoke. In 1969, at age 27, he became the youngest person elected as commonwealth's attorney.

In 1971, he moved to Washington to be staff counsel and legislative liaison to Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. After Agnew resigned in 1973, Mr. Garrison began working on the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment staff. He later was chosen to replace the committee's chief minority counsel, Albert E. Jenner Jr., who called the impeachment case against Nixon persuasive.

After Nixon's resignation, Mr. Garrison left his job on Capitol Hill and returned to Roanoke. About that time, he came out as gay, said his best friend, Hal Cohen of Alexandria.

"It was a very long, agonizing process for [Garrison], his coming out. He was married and had two children and was still a conservative Republican," Cohen said.

He was a partner in a failed Roanoke restaurant and disco. The business had $1 million in debts when it closed, and Mr. Garrison declared bankruptcy. His partner, left with the debt, conspired to kill him to recover $300,000 in insurance, a court later found.

In 1980, as a court-appointed attorney representing a bankrupt mobile home firm in Georgia, Mr. Garrison was indicted in a $46,000 theft from its trust. He was convicted and disbarred and served four months of a one-year sentence. In 1984, Gov. Charles S. Robb (D) restored his political rights, and Mr. Garrison recovered his law license.

From that point on, Mr. Garrison threw himself into Democratic political activism at the local and regional levels.

His marriage to Mary Richardson ended in divorce. A daughter, Lisa Garrison, died in 1985.

Survivors include his partner of 17 years, Mark Harris of Roanoke; a son, David Garrison of Exton, Pa.; and three grandchildren.

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