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Not many people bump into U.S. Supreme Court justices at 30-year reunions. But the get-together that Joseph Connolly attended last month is not your garden-variety reunion. Connolly, a partner at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the “Saturday Night Massacre,” when President Nixon fired special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox. More than 50 members of the Watergate prosecution team gathered at the Grand Hyatt hotel on a night that brought memories flooding back for the now 62-year-old Connolly, who led one of the five task forces that investigated the White House’s role in the Watergate break-in. Connolly’s team looked into contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign by the ITT Corp. Connolly said Cox selected him to lead the ITT team because he was a transactional lawyer. The other teams focused on the Nixon cover-up, the White House “plumbers” who used wiretaps and break-ins to investigate leaks within the administration, campaign finance violations and the Nixon campaign operatives accused of playing dirty tricks on political opponents. One of the five lawyers working with him was a young Harvard Law School professor named Stephen Breyer. The two have remained friends ever since. “Stephen wasn’t with us full time,” Connolly said. “He traveled down after the school year ended. But he was very thorough and insightful, and he really came in handy because of his expertise with antitrust matters. This was a chance for me to work with some extremely talented people, and he was just one of them.” Connolly first was approached about serving on the prosecution team in the spring of 1973. The 1965 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School had returned from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia three years earlier to start a law firm with law school classmates such as Bill Ewing, Neil Epstein and Steve Goodman. After law school, Connolly had served as staff counsel to the Presidential Crime Commission for two years and staff assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for another year before landing the job he really coveted — assistant solicitor general. Connolly was one of nine lawyers who argued cases on the government’s behalf in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was his experience with that office that made him an attractive candidate for the Watergate prosecution team, which consisted of young men who served either in the Solicitor General’s Office or as Harvard Law professors. “As the newspaper disclosures grew, it seemed like it would be awfully important,” Connolly said. “And when I got there, I found out that I was right. My team alone, you were talking about [an investigation] that was massive. It involved the CIA. If we had five years and 50 lawyers, we might have gotten to the bottom of it. But we didn’t have either. “But it was really stunning. When we would push into a soft spot, we found something that we presumed didn’t exist. You couldn’t predict the revelations because the corruption was so widespread.” Among the Nixon administration officials Connolly investigated were domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman and re-election campaign chairman Richard G. Kleindienst. Connolly said the team broke the case eventually, but in the end the evidence amassed against Watergate figures by other prosecution teams proved more damning. “It made little sense to prosecute people for perjury when there were all these other things from the plumbers and the cover-up [teams],” Connolly said. “I mean, how many times can you convict Ehrlichman. Once was enough.” Just as the prosecution team was building up a mountain of evidence, Nixon lowered the boom by firing Cox in October 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his chief deputy, William Ruckelshaus, refused Nixon’s order to fire Cox and resigned, leaving Solicitor General Robert Bork to carry it out. Within days of Cox’s firing, the floor of the House of Representatives was flooded with articles of impeachment against Nixon. But Connolly said the Watergate prosecution team was glum when it learned about the loss of its popular leader. And the group was exceptionally skeptical of his replacement, Fulbright & Jaworski founding partner Leon Jaworski, who was Nixon’s initial choice for the newly created special prosecutor position. They were so skeptical that Connolly said “there was talk” that some of the prosecutors took files out of the office for safe-keeping. When asked if he might have partaken in such activity, Connolly politely declined to respond. That attitude changed when Jaworski arrived from Texas with nothing but his satchel. Connolly said Jaworski could have brought in his own team of lawyers but chose to stick with the group that had been working hard for the past several months. “That was an extraordinary gesture, and it really showed his faith in us,” Connolly said. “So we carried on, and the files magically returned to the office when everyone became comfortable with Leon.” While Connolly greatly respected Jaworski, they were at odds on prosecution strategy pertaining to Kleindienst. Jaworski allowed Kleindienst to plead guilty for failing to testify fully during the Senate investigation of favoritism toward ITT. Connolly felt that Kleindienst had committed crimes that were subject to a stiffer penalty. (The sentence for his plea was suspended.) Largely because of the differences, Connolly decided to leave the prosecutors office three weeks before Nixon resigned in August 1974. Connolly headed back to his firm, which eventually became one of many different incarnations of Connolly Epstein before merging into Eckert Seamans three years ago. When he left, Connolly said he never thought Nixon would resign, regardless of the charges leveled against him. “He had a life where he battled so many times and made his way through all of it, I just didn’t see him giving up this time either,” Connolly said. “He would have been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate if he didn’t resign. “But much of the evidence was circumstantial. We had no real evidence of Nixon pulling the strings himself and that’s what we were after. [Nixon's aides] were so careful to protect him that it would have been tough to put together an irrepressible case. That’s why I think [former President Gerald] Ford did the right thing in pardoning him, because that trial would have been a circus.” Even though Connolly doesn’t believe there was enough time or resources to formulate an airtight case against Nixon, he still believes the prosecution team did an excellent job — finishing with more than 65 convictions of Nixon administration officials, campaign workers and donors. But he said that the Watergate team in many ways faced a different kind of opposition than Ken Starr’s team during the investigation into President Clinton’s involvement in the Whitewater affair, which eventually led to revelations that he had sexual relations with a White House intern in the Oval Office. “We were able to get a number of people to roll and that got momentum going,” Connolly said. “What was different between us and Ken Starr is that much of our work was done without [the White House] fearing the special prosecutor. The Clintons could have anticipated that a special prosecutor would make things hard because we came before Ken Starr. But Nixon’s people didn’t have that advantage because we were the first.”

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