Lawrence E. Walsh, who died on March 19 at age 102, was the 1980s Iran-Contra “independent counsel,” the special prosecutor of the biggest White House scandal and range of crimes since Watergate.
Walsh earned that appointment through his long career as a leading lawyer-statesman. In the 1930s, he prosecuted New York City mobsters. He became one of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey’s prosecuting “boy scouts.” Walsh went to Albany when Dewey was elected governor in 1942, serving as deputy counsel and helping to run the state when Dewey twice was the Republican presidential candidate. In the early 1950s, Walsh returned to mob-fighting, heading New York’s Waterfront Commission.
In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed Walsh a federal judge. He left the bench in 1957 to become Deputy Attorney General. He ran the Department of Justice day to day, including major litigation and special matters such as southern school desegregation and pursuit of civil rights legislation.
In 1961, Walsh became a senior corporate lawyer and litigator at Davis, Polk & Wardwell in New York. He also served as one of President Nixon’s Vietnam peace negotiators, advised him on judicial appointments, and served as president of the American Bar Association. In 1981, Walsh relocated to Oklahoma City, his wife’s hometown.
Semi-retirement was not to be. In December 1986, Walsh was appointed to investigate Iran/Contra. The exploding scandal involved allegations that government officials up to President Reagan himself had secretly, perhaps illegally (1) given military support to “Contra” rebels at war with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, (2) sold missiles to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian government in exchange for efforts to free hostages in Lebanon, and (3) diverted proceeds from Iran missile sales to Contra support.
As Independent Counsel, Walsh dealt with cover-up activities in the Cabinet, congressional grants of immunity to central figures, executive branch refusals to declassify information for public trials, and, in December 1992, presidential pardons of defendants on the eve of trial. In Iran/Contra, Walsh won criminal convictions of 11 persons; obtained withheld documents and confessions to conspiratorial activity, false testimony, and obstructions of justice; and exposed in trials and his final report the high level responsibility for the activities that led to his appointment.
When Walsh was appointed independent counsel, some suspected that this lifelong Republican would go easy on Reagan administration officials. In time, that view gave way to accusations, emanating from supporters of Walsh’s targets, that he was conducting an anti-Republican witch hunt.
Each suspicion was dead wrong. Judge Walsh was an excellent, selfless lawyer who played it straight. His life, devoted to the rule of law, was a great credit to his profession and public service.
John Q. Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York City, worked in the Office of Independent Counsel Walsh from 1988-1993.