Last January, in the early stages of the Iran-contra investigations, the attorney for former White House aide Oliver L. North sought a presidential pardon for his client during a previously undisclosed White House meeting with David M. Abshire, who was then special counselor to the president coordinating Iran-contra strategy for the White House.
The meeting with Lt. Col. North's lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., followed a Jan. 16, 1987, phone call from Sullivan to Attorney General Edwin Meese III. The call was taken by Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott; Sullivan told Trott he wanted to meet privately with President Reagan.
Sullivan refused to specify what he wanted to discuss with Reagan. Several days later the lawyer was received by Abshire, according to former White House aides and still secret testimony before the congressional Iran-contra committees.
Abshire said yesterday that the thrust of the presentation by Sullivan was that North deserved a pardon because he was "a man trying to do his duty, serving the president."
Attempts yesterday to reach Sullivan for comment were unsuccessful. His secretary said he was involved in a trial.
Sullivan, according to Abshire, also said during the meeting that "this thing could drag on" and he "may have also mentioned" that a pardon would permit North to testify freely before Congress.
At that time, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh was just beginning his criminal investigation, the congressional Iran-contra committees were organizing and preparing for public hearings, and North had already invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify before three congressional committees on the ground he might incriminate himself.
Reagan's strategy at that time was to get North and his former boss at the National Security Council, Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter, to tell their stories before Congress under grants of limited immunity, then-White House counsel Peter Wallison said yesterday. However, Walsh had formally requested the Iran-contra committees to delay granting immunity to any witnesses.
Abshire said Sullivan was told "no consideration was being given" to pardons, but that "what he said would be passed on." Also attending the meeting were Abshire's deputy, Charles Brower, and an assistant to Wallison.
Wallison said yesterday that no action was taken on Sullivan's request.
Administration officials acknowledged that the handling of Sullivan's request for a meeting reflected their nervousness about North's lawyer and the difficulties he and his client might cause for Reagan.
In a deposition given the Iran-contra committees July 2, 1987, Trott said he took the Jan. 16, 1987, call that Sullivan originally had made to Meese. Sullivan "wanted to get through to Reagan," Trott said, according to sources who have read Trott's deposition.
After consultations, Trott told Sullivan that he should get in touch with Abshire, who had been appointed counselor to Reagan on Dec. 27, specifically to handle the Iran-contra affair.
Wallison said yesterday that an effort was made to dissuade Sullivan from meeting with Abshire, who was not a lawyer, at least until the White House knew whether he was going to ask about a pardon.
Sullivan was told he had to meet initially with Brower, who had once served as legal adviser to the State Department. Sullivan refused and said he had to meet with Abshire, according to both Abshire and Wallison.
Abshire said yesterday that there was "nothing inappropriate" about Sullivan's request, but that he did not want to "be a channel for lawyers."
Wallison said the White House was worried about such approaches and "didn't want to have any discussion of pardons or any other special treatment for North and Poindexter." If such a request was made, Wallison said, Abshire was "to listen to the proposal without making any statement about whether it would be considered."
Abshire said Sullivan "simply was making his case for his client. I didn't go beyond my brief. I am not the president" and thus could not turn down the request, but only outlined "the process being pursued" in support of investigations by others.
Staff writer Bob Woodward contributed to this report.