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John Dean talks about the Watergate legacy

Douglas Caddy

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Former Nixon adviser John Dean talks about the Watergate legacy

April 16, 2013 12:17 am

By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

John Dean, the former White House counsel whose riveting testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 linked President Richard Nixon to the scandal that would bring down his presidency, was fired from his White House post and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his actions related to the political cover-up.

Four decades later, the disbarred attorney spends much of his time talking to lawyers about legal ethics.

Mr. Dean believes that the events surrounding Watergate forever changed professional conduct standards for lawyers and that if tougher disclosure rules for attorneys had been in place before the crimes occurred, "It could have made a real difference ... to stop some of the nonsense."

His experiences as a young attorney caught up in that historic affair serve as the backdrop for his appearance in Pittsburgh on Friday at a Zittrain forum, "How Watergate Revolutionized Legal Ethics." The event runs 8:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, and is coordinated by the Allegheny County Bar Association.

Also on Friday, Mr. Dean will speak about Watergate as a guest of Duquesne University's 61st Annual Law Alumni Reunion Dinner at the school's Uptown campus.

During an interactive presentation at the bar association forum, which includes clips from a tape of the conversation during which Mr. Dean warned Nixon about a "cancer on the presidency," Mr. Dean and James Robenalt, a Cleveland lawyer and author who teaches ethics, will zero in on how attorney-client privilege and confidentiality is tested when an organization engages in wrongdoing.

Watergate -- in which numerous lawyers associated with the Nixon administration, including Mr. Dean, knew about illegal acts but didn't disclose them -- is their case study.

"It goes to the core debate in any attorney-client relationship: What is your duty of confidentiality ,and how does it conflict with your duty to disclose fraud?" said Mr. Robenalt, a partner and business litigator with Thompson Hine.

He describes Mr. Dean as "the ultimate in-house lawyer for the ultimate organization working for the ultimate CEO."

After Watergate, the legal profession began attempts to beef up ethics policies and educate lawyers about their responsibilities to report misconduct by those they represented.

In 1977, for example, the American Bar Association created the Commission on Evaluation of Professional Standards, which led to the model rules of professional conduct.

Though early versions of the rules did not allow lawyers representing organizations to disclose fraudulent acts because of confidentiality issues, individual states began adopting disclosure provisions. In 2003, the Bar Association amended its rules to allow -- but not require -- attorneys to report illegal activities if the organizations' top executives declined to address the problems.

"The rules changed because of Watergate," said Mr. Robenalt.

Mr. Dean and Mr. Robenalt met through their mutual interest in Ohio-born President Warren Harding. Mr. Dean, who was born in Akron, spent some of his youth in Marion, Ohio. Harding had been the owner and publisher of the local newspaper in Marion.

In 2004, Mr. Dean wrote a book on the 29th president and Mr. Robenalt invited him to speak on a panel at Case Western Reserve University on presidents from Ohio.

A few years later, the men decided to collaborate on a legal education seminar on Watergate. The one they will present here this week is the second in a series.

"I can do it with considerable detachment today," Mr. Dean, 74, said in a telephone interview from his home in southern California. "We can use this history for a really great learning tool. The impact is powerful."

Mr. Dean, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge for his role in Watergate, cooperated with the prosecution as a key witness but was disbarred. He was sentenced to one to four years in prison but served only four months in a "safe house" facility "because they were more interested in keeping me alive," he said.

In the years since Watergate, he has lived with his wife, Maureen, in Beverly Hills and worked as an investment banker, writer and lecturer.

Asked why he never pursued reinstatement of his law license, he said, "I never had the desire to practice. I've been there, done that. I didn't want to mess with the politics of it all. ... I never had a problem making a living."

Though Mr. Dean was raised mainly in Ohio, he said he has strong family links to Pittsburgh: His parents met here while his father attended what was formerly known as Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University, and his mother attended Chatham College, now Chatham University. His son resides in the Pittsburgh area.

Registration for the forum is closed. Walk-ins may attend if they arrive by 8:30 a.m. The event at Duquesne is sold out.

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