Herbert W. Kalmbach, a personal attorney to President Richard M. Nixon who was drawn into the Watergate scandal as an alleged bagman and later went to prison for illegal political fundraising that included the peddling of an ambassadorship, died Sept. 15 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 95.
The death was announced by the family in a notice published in the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Kalmbach had the distinction, it was written in the New York Times in 1973, of being “the most mysterious figure among the strangely assorted cast of characters in the Watergate affair.” A California lawyer, he was by all accounts a loyal servant to the president, low-key and capable in matters political as well as private, and was virtually unknown to the public before the Watergate investigation that drove his client from the White House.
Mr. Kalmbach had met Nixon through a mutual acquaintance and had supported his political ambitions since Nixon, as vice president, made his first, unsuccessful bid for the Oval Office in 1960. Two years later, Mr. Kalmbach stood by his candidate when Nixon lost a race for California governor and prematurely declared his political career to be over.
Nixon’s election to the White House in 1968 — and his choice of Mr. Kalmbach as his private attorney — propelled Mr. Kalmbach’s legal practice and burnished his personal prestige. His social circle reportedly came to include Donald Nixon, the president’s brother, and actor John Wayne. Mr. Kalmbach’s firm, with offices in tony Newport Beach and in Los Angeles, attracted a stream of high-powered corporate clients who, in addition to legal representation, received a certain proximity to the president.
Mr. Kalmbach was entrusted with Nixon’s taxes, his estate planning and the acquisition of the lush property in San Clemente, Calif., that became known during the Nixon administration as the Western White House. Mr. Kalmbach also displayed considerable and sometimes controversial skill in courting political donors, raising a reported $18 million for his client’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns.
Mr. Kalmbach would serve six months in prison after pleading guilty in February 1974 to felony charges of improper fundraising during the 1970 midterm elections and a misdemeanor charge of offering a European ambassadorship in exchange for a $100,000 donation. But he insisted that he did not knowingly participate in any illegality stemming from the notorious events of June 17, 1972.
On that day, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington as part of a scheme to spy on Nixon’s political enemies. The operation and attempt to cover it up were linked to high-ranking Nixon administration and campaign officials.
Among them was Mr. Kalmbach, who helped channel more than $200,000 to the Watergate defendants. He professed that he had understood the payments — later widely regarded as hush money — to be for “humanitarian” purposes.
“My actions in the period immediately following the break-in,” he said before the Senate Watergate committee in July 1973, “which involved the raising of funds to provide for the legal defense of the Watergate defendants and for the support of their families were prompted in the belief that such was proper and necessary to discharge what I assumed to be a moral obligation that had arisen in some manner unknown to me by reason of earlier events.”
Mr. Kalmbach described for the committee the manner in which the cash was distributed: with utmost secrecy, using aliases and containers that included a hotel laundry bag, and with the assistance of Anthony Ulasewicz, a former New York City police detective who made the deliveries.
Ulasewicz, who had been instructed to communicate only by pay phone, recalled carrying so many coins that he had to wear a waist-mounted coin dispenser.
“I would gather from your success that you must be a great lawyer,” Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said to Mr. Kalmbach during his testimony. “Therefore . . . I find it extremely difficult to believe that you are not aware that illegal activities were being carried out.”
Mr. Kalmbach insisted that he had counted on the reputations of Nixon aides, including former White House counsel John W. Dean III, who he said had ordered the payments during a conversation on a park bench in Washington’s Lafayette Square less than two weeks after the break-in.
“Senator, I was dealing with the counsel to the president of the United States,” Mr. Kalmbach testified. “It was a matter of absolute trust in the man’s integrity and honesty. And, again, as I say, it was absolutely inconceivable to me that this man could ask me to do an illegal act, and I never have done an illegal act.”
As evidence mounted that the money may have been used to buy the burglars’ silence in the investigation, Mr. Kalmbach testified that it was “just as if I have been kicked in the stomach.”
Mr. Kalmbach said that he might have been used by Dean, former White House chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, former domestic policy adviser John D. Ehrlichman and former attorney general John N. Mitchell, all of whom went to prison for their roles in the misconduct collectively referred to as the Watergate scandal.
Corruption uncovered in the administration included the “dirty tricks” organized by political prankster Donald H. Segretti to undermine Nixon’s Democratic opposition in the 1972 presidential election. Mr. Kalmbach was identified as an authority who controlled the fund underwriting those activities.
The felony charges against him related to $3.9 million that he raised through an under-the-table campaign committee, with no chairman or treasurer, and that was funneled to congressional candidates in 1970.
Prosecutors did not charge him in connection with other fundraising efforts that had been investigated, including his alleged role soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions or pledges from dairy industry officials in exchange for presidential favors.
His misdemeanor offense of selling an ambassadorship was neither the first nor the last such arrangement, or apparent arrangement, by a member of either major party in American politics. “Isn’t $250,000 an awful lot of money for Costa Rica?” another potential donor, Ruth L. Farkas, was said to have asked him. She instead went to Luxembourg.
Herbert Warren Kalmbach was born in Port Huron, Mich., on Oct. 19, 1921. He was 12 when his father died. During World War II, he was a Navy aviator in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
He received a business degree in 1949 and a law degree in 1951, both from the University of Southern California. There he met Robert H. Finch, a future California lieutenant governor and Nixon adviser, who helped draw Mr. Kalmbach into politics.
Mr. Kalmbach began his legal career practicing title insurance law and was a founding partner of the Southern California firm of Kalmbach, DeMarco, Knapp and Chillingworth. After Nixon’s election, the firm’s clientele came to include corporate giants such as United Airlines, Marriott Corp. and the media giant MCA Inc.
In addition to his prison sentence and $10,000 fine, Mr. Kalmbach received a suspension of his license to practice law. He was reinstated in 1978 and later was of counsel with the firm BakerHostetler.
In 1948, he married Barbara Forbush, a former Rose Bowl princess. She died in 2005. Their son Kenneth Kalmbach died in 1980. Survivors include two children, Lauren Kinsey of Newport Beach and Kurt Kalmbach of Coto de Caza, Calif.
In addition to statements before the Senate Watergate committee, Mr. Kalmbach testified as a prosecution witness in the trials of several Nixon administration officials. He did not, however, implicate Nixon.
When Mr. Kalmbach went to prison, an unnamed friend told the Times that the lawyer had waited futilely for “some word of sympathy or encouragement from the President, or at least an expression of gratitude for his . . . years of unquestioning loyalty.” Mr. Kalmbach, in keeping with the discretion expected of a man of the bar, made no comment on his relationship with his client.