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Frank H. Strickler, Watergate Defense Lawyer, Dies at 92

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Frank H. Strickler, Watergate Defense Lawyer, Dies at 92

The New York Times


April 9, 2012

Frank H. Strickler, a Washington lawyer who represented two of President Richard M. Nixon’s top aides, H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, in the tangled legal aftermath of the 1972 Watergate break-in and its cover-up, died March 29 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 92.

His family announced the death.

Mr. Strickler participated in several dramatic moments in the aftermath of the burglary at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington on June 17, 1972. But he did not leap into the case at the first opportunity.

The day of the break-in, he grumpily answered the phone at his vacation home in Bethany Beach, Del., after being awakened at 4:30 a.m. The caller was E. Howard Hunt, a former C.I.A. agent who was later convicted for helping organize the Watergate operation, according to the book “Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years” (1973), by J. Anthony Lukas.

“You think I’m going to interrupt my vacation and represent anybody like that?” Mr. Strickler said. “You’re crazy!”

But as the case evolved into an investigation of the cover-up by Nixon and his aides, Mr. Strickler and one of his law partners, John J. Wilson, agreed to represent Mr. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, and Mr. Ehrlichman, his counsel and domestic policy adviser. Mr. Ehrlichman later retained his own lawyer, a decision Mr. Strickler said made strategic sense.

In one of Watergate’s tensest moments, Mr. Strickler and Mr. Wilson met for an hour and six minutes with President Nixon on April 19, 1973, in an effort to persuade him not to request the resignation of their clients.

John Dean, the White House counsel, had begun cooperating with prosecutors in the hope of lenient treatment for himself. Both Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman had reason to worry about the testimony of Mr. Dean, who was estranged from them. In the White House, the pair were called “the Berlin Wall,” as much for their power as for their Germanic names.

According to Mr. Lukas, Mr. Strickler told the president that removal of his clients would strike the public as “an admission of guilt.” Nixon replied that the two were “great, fine Americans” and that he would try to save them. He fired Mr. Dean and accepted the resignations of Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Ehrlichman on April 30.

On the eve of Nixon’s own resignation on Aug. 9, 1974, Mr. Haldeman wanted to make made a last-ditch bid for a presidential pardon. Mr. Strickler again was at the center of the action.

He told his client to write a personal memo to Nixon. He and Mr. Wilson supplied legal backup. They suggested pardoning all those accused or convicted of crimes related to Watergate, as well as all Vietnam-era draft evaders. Nixon elected to do neither.

In February 1974, investigators offered Mr. Ehrlichman a chance to plead guilty to a single charge in return for his help in building a case against others. He said no. “His feeling was that he could not plead guilty to something that he did not believe he was guilty of doing,” Mr. Strickler said in an interview with The New York Times. In “Stonewall: The Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution” (1977), the Watergate prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton Jr. wrote that Mr. Haldeman was offered, and turned down, a similar deal.

Both men were eventually convicted and sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison. The sentences were commuted to one to four years. Each served a total of 18 months.

Before the trial of Mr. Haldeman, Mr. Ehrlichman and three other Nixon aides began in November 1974, Mr. Strickler unsuccessfully argued that the case against Mr. Haldeman be dismissed because of the leaking of potentially damaging grand jury testimony. During the trial, Mr. Strickler contended that Mr. Haldeman’s intercession in the F.B.I.’s initial Watergate investigation resulted from his desire to protect a sensitive C.I.A. operation in Mexico.

He also argued that Mr. Haldeman was busy with matters far more important to the nation than Watergate. He called the matter “no more than a pimple on the mound of his other duties.”

Frank Hunter Strickler was born on Jan. 20, 1920, in Washington, and earned undergraduate and law degrees from George Washington University. He helped pay for his education by working as a fingerprint examiner for the F.B.I. He served in the merchant marine during World War II as a seaman and cook. He was a federal prosecutor in Washington in the early 1950s, and then in private practice.

Mr. Strickler is survived by his wife of 57 years, Ellis Barnard Strickler; his daughters, Nancy Strickler Borah and Elizabeth Ann Strickler; his sons, Frank and Charles; and three grandchildren.

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