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INVESTIGATIONS: The Staff Cox Left Behind

6 minute read

When White House staffers came up with yet another botched tape last week, they faced the attack of a brash and bright lawyer named Richard Ben-Veniste, who, at the age of 30, is the main courtroom performer for the staff of the Special Prosecutor for Watergate. After hearing that the tape was indecipherable, Ben-Veniste urged Judge John J. Sirica to take custody of all the presidential tapes in question to ensure their “integrity” — a request that the judge promptly granted.

It is Ben-Veniste and not the new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who has been handling the courtroom duels with the White House lawyers over Watergate. During his three weeks on the job, Jaworski has been content to give plenty of leeway to the staff of 80 people, including 38 lawyers, that he inherited from Archibald Cox. In fact, the staff has become an important force on its own in the struggle to get to the bottom of Watergate. Several key members are determined to quit if Jaworski does not continue to press ahead with the investigation.

Along with their new power, the Watergate staffers have been emerging from their largely anonymous role under Cox to become public figures in Washington. For days, Ben-Veniste and three other lawyers, including Jill Wine Volner, 30, impressed spectators and attorneys with the expert way in which they questioned White House witnesses about the presidential tapes. Indeed, Ben-Veniste gave the impression that he had memorized almost every known fact about the complex Watergate case.

The chief of staff under Cox and now Jaworski is sandy-haired, soft-spoken Deputy Special Prosecutor Henry S. (“Hank”) Ruth Jr., 42. A product of Yale and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he has had more than a dozen years of experience in law enforcement. Among his previous jobs, he served as an investigator of organized crime for Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department, headed the Nixon Administration’s National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, and directed New York Mayor John Lindsay’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

In his low-keyed manner, Ruth held the staff together after the Saturday Night Massacre. That very evening, in fact, he called a staff meeting and reminded the embittered lawyers that by walking out they could well waste six months of intensive investigation into Watergate and other matters. Ruth said he assumed everyone would be showing up for work as usual. There was a hushed moment. “Those who won’t be here, raise your hands,” said Ruth. Not a single hand went up.

The Watergate staffers now often put in 14-hour days, leaving themselves little time for socializing, other than dinner together after working late or lunch on submarine sandwiches in one of the offices located at 1425 K Street. Only two members are over 40; several are in their 20s. About 15 of them were just finishing a year of clerking for a judge when they were recruited. Many of the others have served as state or federal prosecutors.

Most of the senior staff members are from the East, and their annual salaries range from $23,000 to $36,000 (like Cox, Jaworski earns $38,000). To facilitate their work, they are divided into five task forces, each of which is assigned to a different area. The task force targets and their leaders:

WATERGATE CONSPIRACY. Since the resignation of James F. Neal in October, curly-haired Ben-Veniste has acted as head of the task force. Self-confident to the point of being cocky, he graduated from Columbia Law School and then took an advanced degree in law at Northwestern University before becoming an Assistant U.S. Attorney in his native New York. He prosecuted several union kickback cases and also the perjury, bribery and conspiracy charges resulting in the conviction of Martin Sweig, onetime aide to former House Speaker John W. McCormack.

ITT CASE. This investigation—into whether there was any connection between ITT’S offer of $200,000 to the Republican Convention and the company’s antitrust settlement with the Justice Department—is directed by handsome Joseph J. Connolly. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Connolly, 32, has served on the staffs of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 and of Solicitor General Erwin Griswold from 1968 to 1970.


Boyish-looking Richard J. Davis, 27, headed the probe of the efforts of Donald H. Segretti and others to sabotage Democratic presidential campaigners. Davis has also helped with the investigation of ITT. He graduated with the highest average in his class at Columbia Law School, served as clerk to Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein in New York and specialized in corruption investigations as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in New York for a year.

CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS. Directed by stocky Thomas F. McBride, 44, this group has investigated illegal contributions, including those by corporations, to President Nixon’s reelection campaign. A Columbia Law graduate, McBride prosecuted organized crime as an assistant district attorney in New York City, then joined the Organized Crime Section of the Justice Department in 1960. Subsequently, he was a Peace Corps director in Latin America, deputy chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Crime and finally director of the Police Foundation, a private group that finances programs to improve law enforcement.

PLUMBERS. Headed by William H. Merrill, who at 50 is the staff elder, this task force is looking into the operation of the White House’s undercover investigators. A resident of Detroit, Merrill graduated from Yale Law School in 1950, then practiced corporate law in Michigan before becoming Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit in 1961 during the Kennedy Administration.

Merrill directed investigations of mail fraud, organized crime, labor racketeering and tax evasion before returning to private practice in 1966. A Democrat, he lost a race for Congress that year and, two years later, chaired Michigan Citizens for Robert Kennedy.

As a Kennedy Democrat, Merrill was a prime target of White House aides who claimed that Cox’s staff was packed with liberals out to get the President.

That criticism has died down recently with the departure of four avowed Democrats—Cox himself and three of his key aides.

The present staffers bristle at the suggestion that they are politically motivated. As it happens, Merrill and McBride are Democrats, Connolly is a Republican, and Ruth and Davis maintain they are “apolitical.” Ben-Veniste, who declines to reveal his registration and who has been a prosecutor in New York under both Democrats and Republicans, says, “I’m against crooks of both parties.” As for Jaworski, a Johnson Democrat from Texas, he has praised the objectivity of his staff. Says he: “I have complete confidence in their professionalism.”

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