Two Decades After Watergate, Sam Dash in Another Presidential Probe
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Two decades after he gained fame as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, Sam Dash is once again in the throes of a politically charged investigation of a president _ this time as ethics counselor to the Whitewater investigators.
When Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr was criticized for representing a politically conservative group at the same time he was investigating Democrats, he consulted Dash.
When an indictment was issued against the Clintons’ Whitewater real estate partners, Dash pushed for a public statement specifying that it contained no charges of wrongdoing by the president and first lady.
And Dash put a halt to widespread speculation this spring that senior White House adviser Bruce Lindsey was about to be charged, persuading the prosecutor to issue a public statement saying it wasn’t true.
Dash looks much the same as when America last saw the bespectacled law professor on national television even-handedly interrogating President Nixon’s disgraced aides.
``As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict. Other lawyers feel this way too, but it is an absolute mission with me,″ said Dash, a lawyer of 45 years who teaches at Georgetown University Law Center.
From the start, Starr’s motives have been questioned by critics, citing his extensive ties to Republicans. He hired Dash a year ago as a consultant, bringing in an experienced lawyer _ and registered Democrat _ to offer an outsider’s perspective to investigators immersed in a highly complex undertaking.
``In four or five instances, when I believed it was important for fairness, I’ve advised Ken `you should do this or you shouldn’t do that’ and he’s accepted my position. Otherwise, he knows I wouldn’t stay on,″ Dash said.
Starr speaks in deference of ``Professor Dash,″ saying he consults him ``about all critical questions.″
``I felt it important to have the wisdom and learning, and for the public to have the assurance ... that there would be an individual of this standing and reputation,″ Starr said.
Starr said Dash ``was consulted about and agreed to″ one of the Whitewater prosecutor’s most controversial moves, seeking to reassign a criminal case against Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to a different federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Henry Woods’ personal relationship with Hillary Rodham Clinton and his ties to President Clinton create an unmistakable appearance of bias in the Tucker case, Starr argued.
Privately, critics say Dash’s role is that of a senior adviser being used by a Republican prosecutor as political cover in a witch-hunt whose targets are all Democrats.
``I don’t think Sam Dash would allow himself to be used as political cover and he would be alert to it because he had that Watergate experience,″ said attorney Jacob Stein, a former independent counsel who a decade ago investigated Republican Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese.
``Sam is a vigilant observer: he’s seen people used and manipulated and he would be able to identify it if he was being put in that position,″ added Stein. Dash ``would be a very good influence on anyone who is in the prosecutorial mode,″ Stein added.
In Whitewater, Dash’s imprimatur is on several of Starr’s decisions.
When Senate Republicans wanted Starr to agree to calling some key Whitewater witnesses before Congress, Starr followed Dash’s advice and said no. Dash said it would prejudice the upcoming trial of Tucker and the Clintons’ Whitewater partners.
Dash urged Starr to respond to a news report that the Arkansas governor was meeting with Starr to discuss a plea bargaining arrangement. Instead of declining to comment _ the usual practice with prosecutors’ offices _ Starr accepted Dash’s advice to issue a statement saying the news report was incorrect.
``It’s a question of being fair to people,″ Dash explained. ``In the heat of a criminal investigation that is under attack, a neutral view can be helpful.″
Dash’s role on the Whitewater investigation is in keeping with steps he has taken throughout his career.
As an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia in the 1950s, Dash raised a public outcry when he decided it would be wrong to oppose a clemency plea for two convicted murderers sentenced to death. In one of the cases, authorities were found to have covered up important evidence.
In the 1970s, Dash assisted Chief Justice Warren Burger in devising the American Bar Association’s ethical standards for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.
As chief counsel during the Senate Watergate hearings, Dash argued that White House aides should not be subjected to the spectacle of invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on national TV. Doing so in a closed session was appropriate, Dash said.
``The system of justice generally will only be a fair system if lawyers involved see themselves as professionals, not hired guns,″ Dash said. ``Sure they are zealous advocates for their clients, but within the bounds of laws.″