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Dash's Action Reflects Long Reputation for Independence

Samuel Dash Samuel Dash, right, majority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, and Chairman Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.) face former White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman at a 1973 hearing. (Bob Burchette — The Washington Post)

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  • By George Lardner Jr.
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, November 21, 1998; Page A8

    Sam Dash has rarely been bashful about saying what he thinks. But yesterday the calls to his home were pouring in too fast. His wife and chief adviser, Sara Dash, put a stop to them with a message on their voice mail:

    "Professor Dash is not making any further statements. His letter speaks for itself."

    The high-profile ethics adviser to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the man whose name became a household word 25 years ago as chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee had upped and quit in protest to Starr's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, advocating President Clinton's impeachment.

    At 73, Dash knows how to make a headline, just as he did 25 years ago when he brought White House aide Alexander Butterfield before the Watergate committee to reveal that President Richard M. Nixon had been taping his own conversations in the Oval Office. The disclosure led to Nixon's downfall.

    Starr's office was said to be aghast at Dash's abrupt departure, but in retrospect, it should have come as no surprise in view of Dash's reputation for independence and his pride of authorship in having helped draft the independent counsel law, including the provision he accused Starr of stretching.

    When then-Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.), the Watergate committee chairman, offered Dash the chief counsel's job in chasing the Nixon scandal, Dash took it with three stipulations: He would hire his own staff, he would take the facts as far as they would go, and above all, he had to be "competely independent." Ervin put it in writing.

    "I guess one of the reasons we chose Dash," one of Ervin's aides said then, "is because he's not political."

    A native of Camden, N.J., Dash was an Air Force officer in World War II, flying reconnaissance over Italy. He met his wife on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and married her in his second year at Temple University. They decided "together" that he would go to law school and she quit her job as a social worker in Philadelphia to move to Cambridge and put him through Harvard. At 30, he became district attorney in Philadelphia, thanks to a vacancy, but never ran for the job in the machine-run city because, he said, "I wanted to be completely independent with no strings attached." Instead, he became a private attorney (specializing in criminal law), wrote a 1959 book about the evils of wiretapping, and by 1965 had become a Georgetown law professor and director of its Institute for Criminal Law and Procedure.

    One result of the Watergate scandal, Dash takes pride in saying, is a requirement that in all accredited law schools there be a course for professional responsibility.

    Shortly after his appointment in 1994, Starr enlisted Dash in what was taken as a move to shield the new independent counsel from charges of excessive partisanship. The Georgetown professor soon began taking heat for being what critics regarded as too permissive of Starr's outside clients.

    According to Sara Dash, who is her husband's administrative assistant, the criticisms overlooked important distinctions. "What Sam would say to Starr is, 'This is legally ethical but it's not a good idea; I wouldn't do it,' " she said. "Starr doesn't have to take his advice on that; he uses his own judgment.

    "But when Starr goes back on something Sam feels is not legal or ethical, then it's time to quit."

    Wake Forest political science professor Katy Harriger said Dash told her in an interview last summer that he took the job because he was concerned that the Starr investigation could lead to controversy over the independent counsel law itself, just as the Iran-contra investigations of the 1980s led to demands for its undoing. The law was allowed to expire in 1992 for a couple of years, and Dash told Harriger he was worried that "this could happen again."

    In his paid consulting job, Dash helped Starr make the crucial July 22 breakthrough that led to Monica S. Lewinsky's agreement to testify about her sexual encounters with Clinton. Starr met with lawyers for Lewinsky at Dash's home to work out the outlines of a deal over coffee.

    Dash also played a key role in the referral to Congress in September, particularly in arguing for inclusion of impeachment Ground 11, which contended that Clinton had failed to "faithfully execute the laws." The grab-bag charge, including Clinton's insistence to the American public that he never had sex with "that woman," looked to many critics like an attempt to throw the president out of office simply for mounting a vigorous defense. Dash was instrumental in having the language toughened at the last minute to say that the president "unlawfully" invoked executive privilege to shield some aides from testifying.

    Dash, however, drew the line when, in his words, Starr agreed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee "and serve as an aggressive advocate" for the proposition that the president committed impeachable offenses. In Dash's view, that went beyond Starr's "narrow duty" under the law to "objectively" give the House substantial and credible information that may constitute grounds for impeachment.

    Sara Dash said her husband had no objections to Starr's appearing before the committee to explain how his office operated and to defend it against "all the trashing" it was getting.

    At the same time, she said, Dash warned Starr over a two-week period: " 'You may not go in as an aggressive advocate as a prosecutor,' Sam said. 'If you do this, I will have to resign.' "

    Starr has a different view of the law, but Sara Dash observed: "Sam helped draft that statute, for God's sake. He knows it better than Starr."

    Staff writer Dan Morgan contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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