WASHINGTON — In 1987, Robert L. Earl told a grand jury that he had destroyed and stolen national security documents while working for Lt. Col. Oliver L. North during the Iran-Contra scandal.
Now, he sits in one of the most coveted offices in the Pentagon as chief of staff to Gordon R. England, acting deputy secretary of Defense. Earl has clearance to review the kinds of classified documents he once destroyed.
As England goes through his Senate confirmation process, his hiring of Earl has drawn criticism from government ethics watchdogs. But congressional sources said it was unlikely to affect support for England, who was popular on Capitol Hill but whose nomination was tied up over an arcane financial rule.
President Bush nominated England to replace Paul D. Wolfowitz, who left the deputy secretary's post this spring to head the World Bank.
England's chief of staff is the latest figure from the Iran-Contra scandal to play a role in the Bush administration.
Elliott Abrams, who pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress about the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan administration, serves on Bush's National Security Council as head of the Mideast bureau.
Retired Adm. John M. Poindexter, who as national security advisor under Reagan also was implicated in the scandal, has periodically served as a consultant to the Pentagon.
The Iran-Contra case involved the U.S. supplying arms to Iran as part of a complicated deal to fund anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Congress had forbidden direct U.S. aid to the Contras.
A report to Congress by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh stated: "Earl attempted to conceal evidence regarding the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits.... He destroyed [National Security Council] documents, assisted North in the destruction of documents ... and made false statements to the FBI."
He was granted immunity for his testimony in the Reagan administration's most damaging scandal and was never prosecuted.
Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle noted that some of President Clinton's nominees got into trouble for hiring illegal immigrants for domestic work.
Boyle said of Earl: "Allowing this guy to become the chief of staff to England sends a message ... that paying your nanny under the table is grounds not to get a job, but deceiving the FBI and destroying documents will get you a job."
Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were unaware of Earl's tie to the Iran-Contra scandal, congressional aides said. But a spokesman for committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) said the Pentagon had informed Warner. A spokesman for Warner said the senator would have no comment on the matter.
On Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, the few who were aware of Earl's past expressed little concern about his fitness for his current job.
"This was nearly two decades ago," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "And he has served ably for many years in the department and in industry."
The vice chairman of the congressional committee that investigated the Iran-Contra deal, retired Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), said he did not expect Earl's past to cause England much trouble in winning confirmation.
"It was a very serious matter," Rudman said of the scandal in a telephone interview from his New Hampshire home. "In my mind it was more of a constitutional crisis than Watergate, because it had to do with national security matters."
But he said of those involved: "If they've led exemplary lives since then, I think in this country we tend to allow them to make one mistake.... It's a little different than murder, rape or grand larceny. That's my take on Robert Earl."
What has temporarily stalled England's nomination is a rule requiring that senior Defense Department appointees with private pensions from companies that do business with the Pentagon buy insurance in case their former employers go bankrupt. The reasoning is that such an official would then be less reluctant to make a decision that could harm the profitability of his or her former company.