A chief Watergate prosecutor acknowledged yesterday that investigators never firmly established the motive behind the botched 1972 burglary that brought down a president, but said he knew of "no suggestion" that the infamous break-in had any link to a prostitution ring as convicted conspirator G. Gordon Liddy now contends.
The testimony from Earl J. Silbert, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted the burglars, was heard as Liddy went on trial for a second time yesterday in a $5.1 million defamation lawsuit challenging his theory that the Watergate burglars were looking for photos of prostitutes -- not just political dirt -- when they broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters.
"I never even considered there was such a relationship," Silbert testified in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "I knew of no suggestion that there ever was one."
Ida "Maxie" Wells, a DNC secretary at the time of the break-in, sued Liddy in 1997, saying he hurt her reputation by telling lecture audiences that she kept the photos of prostitutes in her desk and suggested that they were used to arrange trysts for visiting Democratic officials.
A federal judge in Baltimore has dismissed the case twice, and a jury failed to reach a verdict last year. But appeals judges have repeatedly sent the case back to court. Yesterday, a new jury heard opening statements and testimony in the long-running case that has put Liddy's mix of history and conspiracy prominently on display.
Liddy went to prison for his role as the leader behind the failed burglary. But the 71-year-old talk-radio host now insists that the real goal behind the break-in 30 years ago was to link Democratic party leaders to a call-girl operation that he alleges involved the future wife of former White House counsel John W. Dean III.
An attorney for Wells told jurors yesterday that Liddy's theory was a slanderous invention, based on the word of a convicted felon who has a history of mental problems so severe that he once described himself as waiting for a spaceship to take him to Alpha Centauri.
David M. Dorsen, a lawyer on the Senate Watergate Committee in the early 1970s who represents Wells, said Liddy knew that the story promulgated by former Washington lawyer Phillip M. Bailley was untrue, but repeated it regardless.
Bailley has claimed that television reporter Diane Sawyer was part of the prostitution ring and that Maryland Del. Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County, then a DNC worker, was one of the operation's runners, according to court records and testimony.
All who have been linked to the alleged Democrat call-girl operation have denounced the theory, including Dean. The former White House lawyer, whose Senate testimony helped lead to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974, filed suit against Liddy in 1992. The lawsuit was dismissed before it went to trial.
"We say that [Liddy's] statement is false, and that is what we will prove to you," Dorsen told the jury.
Liddy's attorney countered that his client initially was skeptical of the theory and became convinced of its likelihood only after doing extensive research.
John B. Williams, the attorney representing Liddy, said his client has a right to talk about alternative theories on the political scandal that put him and Wells in the history books.
"Both Ms. Wells and Mr. Liddy are part of Watergate history," Williams told jurors yesterday. "Mr. Liddy has simply repeated an account of history that has been openly and thoroughly debated for several decades now."
Jurors heard yesterday from several of Wells' former colleagues at the DNC, who recalled her as enthusiastic but naive when she arrived in Washington in 1972 after graduating from a small religious college in Mississippi.
Barbara Kennedy Rhoden, a former co-worker, testified that she had heard talk after the break-in about Wells and a Capitol Hill call-girl ring, but it was dismissed as nonsense."