The Assignment of a Lifetime

Joe Connolly reflects on a little case called Watergate

Published in 2004 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

By David Rubenstein on May 31, 2004


Joseph J. Connolly, a partner in the
Philadelphia office of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, has been laboring in the vineyards of corporate transactions for a good 30 year. Circumspect and seasoned, he prefers to note for the record only that some of those transactions have involved very large corporations “in medium to high nine-figure deals.”

Deals are Connolly’s bread and butter, but once in a while he ventures into the world of civil-cum-criminal law, in such areas as white-collar crime.When he does, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Back in 1973, at the tender age of 32 — with more than two years as an assistant solicitor general and several appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court behind him — he was enlisted by Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox to head one of five Watergate prosecution groups.

There he matched wits with some of the most formidable white-collar criminals, political scoundrels, true believers and “healthy right-wing exuberants” (as Nixon’s special counsel and hatchet man Chuck Colson called them) the country has ever known.

They included E. Howard Hunt, who to this day remains a Mission Impossible-style hero to some, to others a perennial miscreant who appears and reappears in the dicey Cold War history of America like a bad penny.A key figure in the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in 1954, he considered his dirty work for Nixon merely another front in the battle. Hunt, along with G. Gordon Liddy, were the “old men” who kept an eye on the break-in from a motel room directly across from the sixth-floor Democratic headquarters. Later, Hunt’s tape-recorded blackmail demands to Nixon’s henchmen played a key role in the administration’s unraveling.

Connolly’s prosecution group was specifically charged with investigating the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) matter, an alleged quid pro quo whereby the Nixon administration would get the Justice Department to back off on an antitrust charge against the ITT in exchange for money to help finance the Republican National Convention.As it happened, Hunt was involved in that one, too. One of the more bizarre episodes in the Watergate saga involved Hunt donning a red wig and going off to cajole an ITT lobbyist named Dita Beard to change her story.

“He appeared to be one of the most sincere, candid people that you would ever want to talk with,” Connolly says of Hunt, “but you just knew it wasn’t true.”

Oddly enough, the day Connolly interviewed Hunt included three or four of the most chilling minutes of his Watergate experience. Hunt, who was in prison, was brought to Connolly’s office in handcuffs and leg irons, escorted by a federal marshal. Connolly immediately told the marshal he didn’t want him in the office. Nor did he want Hunt in handcuffs and leg irons.The marshal obliged and left the room, and it wasn’t long before Hunt asked if he could go to the bathroom.

“I said,‘Sure.’ It’s three doors down and to the right, or whatever it was.Then I am sitting there, and it suddenly occurs to me: ‘Oh my God! Suppose I let Howard Hunt escape!’”

Hunt, though, was no Eric Rudolph. He dutifully returned, and was duly interrogated. “I got nothing,” Connolly says.

But among the many political figures whom Connolly questioned during the investigation, none was more formidable in his estimation than John B. Connally, Nixon’s former treasury secretary and a key member of the administration.

The wily former Democrat, former governor of Texas and protégé and pal of Lyndon, was a survivor — just barely — of the rifle attack that killed John F.Kennedy. He was not thought to be involved in the ITT matter, but Connolly considered him a possible witness because of his intimate knowledge of the Nixon administration.

“A brilliant man,” says Connolly,“and a man in no way intimidated by the investigatory process.”

Later, he did go to trial for taking money from the milk industry, allegedly for supporting milk price controls, but he survived that too, without a scratch. Connally was acquitted in 1975.“He had as his lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, the premier defense lawyer in the United States. Those two together were an unbeatable combination,” Connolly says.

Looking back three decades, Connolly says he believes his Watergate experience gave him a healthy dose of self-confidence and a feeling of profound accomplishment, as well as a kind of sophistication about “assessing truthfulness and motive” that has served him well.

It was certainly, for him and for his mostly young colleagues, a heady and allconsuming experience. During his Watergate days, Connolly was housemates with Charles Breyer, brother of the Supreme Court justice and now a federal judge in California.“We didn’t go out much,” he recalls.“If we went  to cocktail parties, we would just have to stand in the corner and not say anything.”

In Connolly’s view, the possibility that something like Watergate could happen again cannot be discounted.Why?

These things happen, he says,“when government officials at any level think the end is so important that they should change the rules.”

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