David H. Martin, a Washington lawyer who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics during the Reagan administration and advocated a cautious approach to the job, died March 28 at his home in McLean, Va. He was 74.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Dianne Martin.

Mr. Martin assumed his post in the federal ethics office in 1983, midway through Ronald Reagan’s first term in the White House. A former Justice Department trial lawyer, Mr. Martin had previously served as chief counsel to the Secret Service and worked in private practice representing clients that included the National Rifle Association.

His assignment in the Office of Government Ethics was his most prominent and perhaps most difficult role. Created after the Watergate scandal, the office had a staff of about two dozen and was tasked with overseeing the conduct and particularly the financial dealings of thousands of executive branch officials. Mr. Martin was only the second person to hold the post.

He explained in his Senate confirmation hearings his working philosophy for the office.

David H. Martin, shown here in 1983, served as director of the Offfice of Government Ethics during the Reagan years. (James K.W. Atherton/The Washington Post)

“Low visibility in terms of public activity is a matter of taste,” Mr. Martin said. “Its function should not be to respond to rumors or allegations that surface in the press.”

He said that he envisioned the office as a “highly specialized consulting firm” that, in addition to other functions, would help officials comply with ethics guidelines. Under his leadership, the office published a handbook titled “How to Keep Out of Trouble.”

His approach drew criticism from some leaders on Capitol Hill and from advocacy groups such as Common Cause, which called for more robust investigations of public officials.

Mr. Martin’s office figured prominently in the investigations of the lobbying work of former White House aide Michael K. Deaver and the business dealings of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, both close advisers to Reagan.

Congressional leaders, including Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), who chaired a House panel that oversaw Mr. Martin’s office, faulted him for failing to thoroughly investigate the attorney general’s alleged conflicts of interest involving financial disclosures.

Meese, for his part, charged that Mr. Martin had breached an ethics guideline by discussing his case with Sikorski.

“This is the toughest job in government,” Mr. Martin told the New York Times when he stepped down in 1987, “and nobody realizes it.”

David Henderson Martin was born on Dec. 5, 1939, in Bedford, Va., and moved to the District as a child. He graduated from Anacostia High School in 1958. Four years later, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Western Maryland College in Westminster — now McDaniel College — where he was captain of the varsity basketball team.

Mr. Martin was in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving some of the time in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, before receiving a law degree from George Washington University in 1967.

He began his legal career in the Justice Department’s organized crime and racketeering section. He was working for the Secret Service when he met Reagan in 1976, during the future president’s unsuccessful bid for that year’s Republican nomination, and later worked on Reagan’s successful 1980 campaign.

After leaving the ethics office, Mr. Martin served for a year as head of the Legal Services Corp., which funds legal aid for the poor. He later founded and ran the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance for “police officers unfairly charged with a crime or a civil offense while acting in the line of duty,” according to its Web site.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, C. Dianne Briggs Martin of McLean; two children, Jennifer R. Minnelli of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Charles D. Martin of the District; two brothers; a sister; and two grandchildren.