Jury rejects claim that Liddy hurt reputation

Repeating Watergate call-girl ring theory didn't defame ex-DNC secretary

July 04, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A federal jury in Baltimore weighed in on history yesterday, rejecting claims that Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy hurt the reputation of a former Democratic National Committee secretary when he linked the infamous burglary to a call-girl ring.

The jury was not asked to decide whether it believed the alternate Watergate theory, which portrays the burglars as looking for photos of prostitutes and not just political dirt. But in their verdict, the jurors found that Liddy did not defame Ida "Maxie" Wells by repeating it.

Liddy, 71, who has parlayed his role in the history books as a Watergate villain into a successful career as a lecturer, talk radio host and actor, called the jury's decision a "great day for the First Amendment."

"I think it's very important that American citizens be able to have vigorous debate on the elements of history," said Liddy, who flashed a victory sign as he left U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Wells, the former DNC secretary who filed the $5.1 million defamation suit against Liddy in 1997, said the verdict amounted to a license for Liddy to continue spreading lies.

"It just kind of makes me feel like there is no justice," Wells said as she wiped away tears. "To me, what's so frustrating is somebody can just go around and tell lies about you and get away with it."

Wells, now a community college dean in Baton Rouge, La., said in her suit that Liddy had hurt her reputation by wrongly telling audiences that photos of call girls were kept in her desk at Democratic headquarters and used to arrange trysts for visiting dignitaries.

Liddy went to prison for organizing the team of burglars captured inside the Watergate complex June 17, 1972. But he contends that he was kept in the dark about the real purpose of the operation and says the burglars were directed by then-White House counsel John W. Dean III to find the pictures because they could have linked Dean's future wife to a high-class prostitution ring.

Dean, Wells and virtually everyone involved with the DNC at the time have flatly rejected the claims as slanderous fiction.

"It is a stunning verdict," Dean said yesterday in an interview from his home in California. "I'm almost speechless, because I don't understand how a jury could find it is not defamatory to say Maxie Wells was helping run a call-girl ring."

He said Liddy relied on a circle of bogus rumors to support the call-girl theory. Dean suggested that he would consider renewing his 1992 defamation suit against Liddy, which was dismissed by a federal judge in Washington.

Wells, 53, said she did not know whether she would file an appeal in her case, which had twice been dismissed by a federal judge and once gone to a jury. In the earlier trial, the jury deadlocked 7-2 in Liddy's favor.

Wells' attorney David M. Dorsen, who served on the Senate Watergate committee as a young lawyer in the 1970s, said he was mystified by the jury's decision.

"I was astonished --- to think that that's not defamatory," said Dorsen, who had summed up the case to jurors by saying: "Yes, there is a First Amendment. No, the First Amendment does not protect someone when he defames someone else."

In closing arguments yesterday, Liddy's attorney John B. Williams said that the many dueling versions of Watergate should continue to be freely and openly debated without fear of lawsuits.

"It's pretty clear that this case is not about the speech - it's about the speaker," he told the jury. "It's an attempt to eliminate the call-girl theory from open debate about Watergate."

In the trial, Williams sought to prove that the Watergate call-girl theory was grounded in fact. He introduced a report showing that one of the burglars was carrying a key to Wells' desk at the time of the arrest and offered circumstantial evidence linking a high-class prostitution ring at the Columbia Plaza Apartments to the DNC at the nearby Watergate office complex.

Dorsen said the theory relied almost entirely on the word of a disbarred Washington lawyer with a conviction on a prostitution-related charge and a history of severe mental troubles.

The jury of six men and one woman deliberated four hours yesterday before returning their verdict against Wells. Afterward, Chief U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin thanked them for their service, saying: "You have in a sense become a part of the history of Watergate."

The jurors had to consider two key issues in the case - whether Wells had shown that the claims Liddy made defamed her and whether he acted negligently when he made them in a speech at James Madison University in 1996 and on board a cruise ship in 1997.

Once the jury determined that the statements were not defamatory, they did not have to consider whether Liddy was careless in making the remarks.

Most of the jurors declined to be interviewed outside of court. But the foreman, Stuart L. Friedrich of Finksburg, said the jurors had tried to be fair and open-minded as they listened to the at-times sordid theories behind a scandal many of them were too young to have followed closely in the 1970s.

"I was 22, 23, down in Alabama and changing jobs," Friedrich said. "I didn't pay too much attention to it then."

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