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It's Deja Vu as Watergate Flavors Liddy Trial

Courts: Key figure offers his own version of events--including call girls--as he testifies in defamation suit.

January 30, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BALTIMORE — When the time came, G. Gordon Liddy approached the witness stand Monday with the confident posture of an actor and spoke with the controlled diction of a radio talk show host--the twin careers that have kept him in the public eye long since he first won infamy as a Watergate felon.

Liddy's notoriety as a leader of the botched 1972 political burglary that spawned a constitutional crisis--and his more recent public ruminations about how he wound up in that role--have landed him in a federal courtroom in Baltimore, forced to defend himself against a $5.1-million defamation lawsuit.

The three-week-long trial has dredged up history and conspiracy theory in equal measure--a convoluted stew of fact and allegation a quarter-century old that pits Liddy against the conventional account of Watergate. Liddy testified Monday that Watergate's real villain was John W. Dean III, the former White House lawyer whose Senate testimony helped lead to President Nixon's resignation in 1974.

Liddy insists that it was Dean--and not Nixon's men, as long has been accepted--who ordered the burglary to quietly gather information about a link between Democratic Party officials at the Watergate and a call-girl operation that allegedly involved Dean's own future wife.

"This," the 70-year-old Liddy intoned, his dyed-black mustache bristling, "was a John Dean op."

Caught in the middle of the duel between conventional wisdom and revisionist history is Ida "Maxie" Wells, a Louisiana teacher who in the 1970s worked briefly as a secretary in the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. In Liddy's oft-repeated theory, Wells allegedly arranged assignations between visiting Democrats and the call-girl ring. Outraged by Liddy's claims, Wells sued Liddy for defamation.

"I just feel powerless to stop him," Wells sobbed on the witness stand last week.

The trial has become a battleground where Watergate's old scores are being settled once more, where combatants who sparred 25 years ago in congressional hearing rooms are at it again, now as old men.

There is Liddy himself, Watergate's most colorful and perhaps most durable villain, bald head shining under courtroom ceiling lights, his demeanor as clipped and proper as a Prussian military officer. Asked to identify himself at the outset of his testimony, Liddy slipped into military parlance. "Liddy," he said. "That's Lima, India, Delta, Delta, Yankee."

Despite his comfortable career on the radio and acting roles as a television bad guy on "Miami Vice" and "MacGyver," Liddy is still raw about the five years he served in prison--which the former FBI agent mordantly calls "the joint."

He defended his long silence on Watergate--Liddy refused to testify in his criminal trial or before Congress, leading to a 21-year sentence later commuted by President Carter. His testimony Monday was Liddy's first detailed explanation in a courtroom. "My father didn't raise a snitch or a rat," he said.

And Liddy insisted Monday that the conventional version of Watergate--which blames Nixon and aides for pursuing political surveillance on Democratic Party officials during the '72 election--is simply flat-out wrong.

"There is direct evidence of a connection between Dean, the DNC and the . . . call-girl ring," Liddy said.

Nearly every brick of fact in Liddy's account has been hammered at by Well's lawyer, David M. Dorsen--who once worked as a Senate Watergate Committee lawyer during the congressional investigation of the scandal.

Liddy's call-girl theory "defies belief," Dorsen huffed. An ardent defender of the "conventional version" of Watergate, Dorsen has questioned everything from Liddy's free-wheeling discussions of Watergate in 1996 before a college audience and in 1997 on a cruise ship lecture to the reliability of some of Liddy's sources.

Dorsen argues that Wells, who later worked as a personal secretary for Carter in the White House, would never have been offered that prestigious job if she had a hidden past.

"It defies belief that if there were an active prostitution ring operating out of the DNC in 1971-1972, in which she played a conspicuous role, no Democratic worker or official [would have come] forward to protect President Carter from the political scandal," Dorsen said.

Other figures from Watergate's past have flitted through the trial.

Former Senate Watergate lawyer Howard S. Liebengood testified for Liddy, supporting his claims. Lawyers for both sides have produced depositions from such familiar players as White House lawyer Charles Colson and convicted burglar Alfred E. Baldwin. And witnesses have produced volumes of claims and counterclaims about the words and actions of key Watergate figures such as former Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, Nixon campaign lawyer Jeb Stuart Magruder and ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt.

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