Earl J. Silbert, who led the federal prosecution of the botched Watergate burglary that secured the convictions of the five burglars and two of the break-in’s planners, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, died Sept. 6 in Keene. , NH he was 86 years old.
His death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Leslie Silbert, who said the cause was an inoperable aortic dissection. She lived full time in Chevy Chase, Md., and had a vacation home in Jaffrey, NH.
the break in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex on June 17, 1972, set off a chain of events that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon two years later.
Mr. Silbert, who was then the Senior Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, prosecuted the case with two other Assistant United States Attorneys, Donald Campbell and Seymour Glanzer, and collaborated with the FBI. on the research.
The case, in Mr. Silbert’s view, was limited to the seven defendants. He didn’t see it as a forum to go after top brass like John N. Mitchell, the former attorney general who spearheaded Nixon’s re-election campaign, or John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief. Both men ended up going to prison for their role in the scandal.
Mr. Silbert’s strategy was criticized by members of Congress and by Judge John J. Sirica, who, overseeing the trial in the US District Court, cross-examined witnesses on the stand and urged prosecutors to be more aggressive. Judge Sirica, in his 1979 memoir, “To Set the Record Straight: The Break-in, the Tapes, the Conspirators, the Pardon”, described Mr. Silbert as “naive and somewhat inexperienced”.
In his book “Watergate: A New History” (2022), journalist Garrett M. Graff wrote that by focusing his attention on the robbery, Silbert presented “the narrowest case possible.” That decision, Graff said, was “an almost total strategic victory for the White House.”
But Leslie Silbert, who collaborated with her father on the book “Watergate: The Missing Story,” due out this winter, said in a phone interview that she had focused on the job at hand, prosecuting a robbery, and that he felt that once he had those convictions, he would have influence over high-level actors.
In fact, he said, after one of the convicted burglars, James W. McCord Jr., said in a letter read at his March 1973 sentencing that the White House had covered up his connection to the break-in, John Dean, the House Blanca, a lawyer, began long negotiations with prosecutors to plead guilty and become a cooperating witness.
Mr. Dean’s testimony would expose the White House’s illegal efforts to cover up the robbery and other crimes.
For Silbert, who later became a respected white-collar defense attorney, the Watergate trial was the most high-profile case of his career.
As a young prosecutor, he was forced to be apolitical while handling a “monumentally political prosecution,” he recalled in his book.
Shortly after the trial began in January 1973, four of the robbers and Mr. Hunt pleaded guilty, leaving two defendants, Mr. Liddy and Mr. McCord, to stand trial.
Mr. Liddy was found guilty of conspiracy, robbery in the second degree, wiretapping, attempted wiretapping, and attempted wiretapping. Mr. McCord was convicted of the same charges and two others: possession of wiretapping equipment and wiretapping.
At the time, however, Mr. Silbert did not see that the case would lead to President Nixon. The Watergate break-in, he told The New York Times in 1975, was incompetent and reckless, the marks of a menial job.
“You would expect it to be a more sophisticated operation the higher you go,” he said. One would think they have a good reason. If the White House was going to get involved, it wouldn’t take a huge risk for something with little gain. You always assume, and maybe that was a mistake, an underlying rationality.”
At home, Silbert’s wife, Pat, “hated President Nixon and was convinced he was involved from the beginning,” he wrote. “She frequently proclaimed him guilty, and my standard response, ‘Show me the evidence,’ infuriated her.”
At trial, he told the jury that Mr. Liddy was “the boss” of the break-in and that he and his colleagues “were in a business of their own.”
But soon he had his own suspicions. In May, he asked another assistant US attorney for his opinion on whether a grand jury could indict a sitting president if he hadn’t been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate.
The answer was no, but he could be named as an unindicted co-conspirator, as was Nixon the following year, for his role in covering up the robbery.
It is almost certain that what happened after the trial was more important in unraveling the Watergate scandal than the trial itself.
Mr. Silbert and his team began meeting secretly with Mr. Dean, who, during explosive Senate hearings in June, proved that Nixon was involved in the cover-up of the robbery, and with Jeb Stuart Magruder, the former deputy director . of the Commission for the Reelection of the President.
“They were the ones who broke the cover-up by coming to meet with us in secret,” Silbert said in an interview with the District of Columbia Circuit Historical Society in 1992. “But it was McCord’s cooperation and the publicity surrounding him. helped persuade Dean and Magruder that they should go in.”
Magruder pleaded guilty in August 1973, and Dean followed two months later. By then, Archibald Cox had been appointed special prosecutor for Watergate and Mr. Silbert and his colleagues had withdrawn from the case.
But Silbert prepared a summary of his investigation that he gave to Cox, including the names of 27 targets for possible indictment. One of them was President Nixon.
Earl Judah Silbert was born on March 8, 1936 in Boston. His father, Coleman, was a lawyer and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. His mother, Lillian (Rosenberg) Silbert, was a social worker and homemaker.
Mr. Silbert, who once aspired to be a teacher, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University in 1957 and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1960. He joined the Justice Department after graduation, arguing appeals around the country until 1964, and then spent five years as an assistant US attorney in Washington before returning to the Justice Department in 1969.
He rejoined the US Attorney’s office in Washington in 1970, and in 1974 he became Acting US Attorney, replacing Harold Titus, who had resigned due to illness.
Mr. Silbert was nominated for the permanent job by President Nixon, and twice by Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford, but the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed the nomination for 21 months amid criticism that Mr. Silbert did not grant immunity to more potential defendants. develop cases, and his decision to allow some Nixon aides to testify in private and not before a grand jury.
The nomination was finally confirmed by the Senate in October 1975, with a vote of 84 to 12.
Mr. Silbert remained a federal prosecutor until 1979, when he went into private practice, first with Schwalb, Donnenfeld, Bray & Silbert, then with the firm now known as DLA Piper. He developed a national reputation for his defense of white-collar clients.
“He was particularly respected as a lawyer’s attorney,” Sheldon Krantz, a former partner at DLA Piper, said in a telephone interview. “He represented lawyers when there were problems about his ethics. He was the person to go to when a lawyer got into trouble.”
His clients included former Attorney General Griffin Bell, when he was accused of defaming the manager of an EF Hutton branch in an investigative report on a fraudulent check scandal; former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles during independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton; and Kenneth Lay, former chairman and CEO of the bankrupt energy company Enron. Mr. Silbert talked Mr. Lay out of answering questions at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 2002.
In addition to his daughter Leslie, Mr. Silbert is survived by his wife, Patricia (Allott) Silbert; another daughter, Sarah Silbert; and three grandchildren.