WASHINGTON — The high-flying White House career of Johnathan S. Miller, a conservative lawyer who became a deputy assistant to President Reagan at the age of 33, came to an abrupt end Thursday afternoon in little more than an hour.
Miller, the White House director of administration, was watching Congress' Iran- contra hearings on television in his office when he heard himself named as helping Lt. Col. Oliver L. North deliver cash to a Nicaraguan rebel leader.
"I was in absolute shock," he said. "There was only one thing I could think of to do, and that was to resign."
Miller said he walked into the office of White House counsel A.B. Culvahouse and told him he felt he should quit. No one argued with the decision, he said.
First Casualty of Hearings
And shortly after 5 p.m., Miller walked out of the White House's south gate, got into a four-wheel-drive vehicle driven by a friend and went home to the Virginia horse country outside Washington. He became the first Administration official to resign as a result of disclosures in the congressional hearings, which ended their second week Thursday.
"I don't think I've done anything wrong," he said at the White House gate. "But I didn't want to burden the President with a problem, and that would have happened if I were to hang on.
"My lawyer is furious," he added. "He thinks this makes me look guilty, and I'm not."
Miller, who came to the National Security Council staff as a protege of North, said he would neither confirm nor deny the account of his role in the contra cash payment.
Robert W. Owen, who served as North's private liaison officer with the contras, testified that Miller helped him convert $6,000 or $7,000 in traveler's checks from North's office safe into cash for a contra leader in March, 1985. At the time, Congress had prohibited U.S. government aid to the rebels.
Checks From Contra Leader
Owen said that the traveler's checks had been provided by another contra leader, apparently from aid provided by Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries.
"If that actually happened, all we did was to relay some money from one Nicaraguan to another Nicaraguan," Miller said. "I don't think there was anything illegal about that."
At the time of the cash incident, Miller was working at the State Department on "public diplomacy" to promote the Administration's policy of aid to the contras. That job put him in frequent contact with North, and Miller often spoke admiringly of the NSC aide who worked tirelessly on the rebels' behalf.
On Thursday, however, Miller was bitter about North. "He used people," he said. "A lot of us had no idea of a lot of the things he was up to."
He did not criticize Owen, who identified him to congressional investigators, except to say: "I had no idea that my name was going to come up."
White House Got Warning
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said investigators informed the White House on Tuesday "that Johnathan was involved in this episode." He said White House officials knew of no other involvement by Miller in North's network, which funneled private and foreign aid to the contras.
Fitzwater declined to comment on the episode. "It's a matter for him and the (congressional) committee to sort out," he said. "I make no judgments."
Miller, now 34, has been director of administration at the White House since June, 1986, a job that includes managing the presidential office complex.
He came to Washington as an aide to the 1980 presidential campaign of George Bush, who became vice president. He later served in the Agency for International Development and directed Peace Corps operations in Botswana.