The Watergate Prosecutor’s Conflict of Interest Exposed

Archibald Cox is remembered as one of the most ethical attorneys in recent American history. His integrity was so strong that Elliot Richardson was forced to appoint him as Special Prosecutor to oversee the federal criminal investigation into the Watergate burglary and other related crimes and corruptions. Eventually, Nixon fired Archibald Cox when the Special Prosecutor would not stop seeking tapes and other materials relating to the President as part of the Watergate investigation and prosecution. This led to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, and thoroughly cemented Cox’s already well-earned reputation for integrity. Yet, this honorable man was not without his flaws – flaws which may have seriously crippled elements of the Watergate investigation.

FBI documents show that, as part of the Watergate investigation, FBI agents from the Los Angeles field office visited the Summa Corporation (previously the Hughes Tool Company) and the Northrop Corporation. The Northrop executives were being asked about campaign contributions to President Nixon’s re-election campaign, and the head of Summa Corporation, which sometimes contracted with the CIA, about a plot to break into Henry Greenspun’s safe. The “Greenspun caper” had been planned in the living room of Morton Jackson, a lawyer and former CIA employee, with Howard Hunt, another former CIA employee who then worked for President Nixon’s re-election campaign as well as Robert R. Mullen Company, a public relations firm that provided cover to CIA operations. The head of the Summa Corporation was being asked about this because the company had played a role in the planning of the caper.

Howard Hunt had first heard from his employer at the Robert R. Mullen Company, Bob Bennett, that Greenspun’s safe had memos from Howard Hughes that had been given to him by Bob Maheu, Howard Hughes’ right hand man and the person who helped the arrange the CIA/mafia sponsored assassination attempts on Castro, for safe keeping. The safe also allegedly contained information that would have been quite damaging to the Muskie campaign. Hunt met with Frank Winte, the Summa Corporation’s head of security and Director of Internal Systems and Service Audit, at the Wilshire Hotel in California to discuss what Howard Hunt would later describe as a confluence of interest. The safe supposedly had documents that would be of interest to Howard Hughes and the Summa Corporation, as well as documents that could’ve been used by the Nixon campaign. The proposed plan was for James McCord to lead a breakin team to bust open Greenspun’s safe and take the documents. They would later be divided with the Summa Corporation, which would provide support in the form of air travel, equipment, etc.

By all reports Frank William Gay, who was then the Executive Vice President of Summa Corporation, was against the idea and in February 1972 told Winte that the corporation had no interest in it. This was, supposedly, the end of the plan. However, both recordings and physical evidence from the time tell a different story – one that might have been investigated and discovered during the Watergate hearings if not for Archibald Cox’s conflict of interest during the initial investigation.

An April 14, 1973 transcript from the White House shows that the White House Plumbers (AKA the Watergate Burglars) had successfully gotten in.

NIXON: Did they really try to get into Hank Greenspun?
EHRLICHMAN: I guess they actually got in.

EHRLICHMAN: They flew out, broke his safe, got something out [unintelligible].”

There may have been another break-in, as secretary Ruthe Deskin noticed in August of that year that the window had been opened and the front of the safe had been partially torn off. The police were notified of the break-in, records of which the FBI could have accessed at the time if they wanted. Yet, this mystery was never fully explored despite the fact that Sam Dash, the chief counsel to the Watergate Senate Committee, reportedly later told Greenspun that the Watergate scandal would not have happened if not for the memos in the safe.

So why was the issue not properly explored? It may have been due to a conflict of interest. At the time that the Bureau was investigating the Greenspun affair and speaking to Frank William Gay about it, the Summa Corporation’s lawyer was one of two named partners at his law firm – the other was Archibald Cox’s brother.

Frank Gay told the Bureau that all campaign contributions were made through a committee, and the only contributor was Howard Hughes (who had very recently employed the other target of the Watergate burglars, Larry O’Brien, as his lobbyist in Washington D.C.). Gay also told the FBI that the Summa Corporation employed Bob Bennett, Howard Hunt’s employer at the time of the Watergate affair, to handle “delicate matters pertaining to contributions in the Washington, D.C. area.” Most significantly, Frank Gay told the agents interviewing him that he may have discussed the plan to break into the Greenspun safe with the Summa Corporation’s Corporate Counsel, Chester Davis of the Law Firm of Davis and Cox in New York – and that Cox was Maxwell Cox, the brother of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.

This conflict of interest doesn’t seem to have been explored by the Bureau or during the Watergate Hearings, which also remained unaware of the series of break-ins at Howard Hughes buildings from which similar memos were stolen. As the heat was increasingly put on Nixon while Deep Throat spoke out and the CIA struggled to stay out of the spotlight, the public forgot about the corporations and no one considered the conflict of interest. While the conflict of interest may have been innocent, it’s important to note that this is the same lawyer who, decades later, would decline a position as head of the state Ethics Commission to avoid the even appearance of a conflict of interest. For the Watergate case? It wasn’t even disclosed.

You can read a selection of relevant documents below. Some pages are shown twice, as one version is redacted while another is unredacted but less legible.


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