One Deliberate Step at a Time, a Prosecutor Builds His Case

updated 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

His friends call him Mr. Integrity. Opposing lawyers have dubbed him Darth Vader. In the context of the continuing Iran-contra drama, though, special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh might be called Godot—as in waiting for. It has been almost a year since Walsh, 75, once a federal judge, was recruited to head an independent investigation into possible criminal charges stemming from covert operations to send arms to Iran and cash to the contras. Yet even as rumors began to circulate that President Reagan might grant Thanksgiving Day pardons to Iran-contra principals, Walsh's staff was still not ready to hand up its first indictment.

Nevertheless the mere knowledge that Walsh and his team are holed up in a Washington high rise collecting the evidence that could land Oliver North, John Poindexter, Albert Hakim, Richard Secord and others in jail and not just on TV has been a palpable offstage influence on this public passion play. As North confessed to Congress last July, "I do honestly believe that they expected Ollie would go quietly, and Ollie intended to do so right up until the day that somebody decided to start a criminal investigation."

Since then North and his associates have been waiting—and waiting, and waiting—for the other shoe to drop. But, says Walsh, "in criminal prosecutions you learn not to rush unnecessarily. You rush once, you learn fast." So painstakingly does Walsh attend to details that he once reportedly kept staffers up all night to white out some unsightly spots on documents that had been poorly photocopied.

The son of a Queens, N.Y., doctor and his wife, a nurse, Walsh learned the prosecutorial art at the knee of Thomas E. Dewey, the legendary Manhattan district attorney and New York governor, who made war on waterfront crime and corrupt politicians. Walsh won his cases not through courtroom theatrics but through his mastery of the facts. A lifelong Republican who has moved back and forth between private practice and government service, he is widely regarded as one of the preeminent litigators of his era. And that is just what three federal-court judges thought they needed last fall when they were charged with naming a special prosecutor for a case that might lead to the White House. Their only reservation concerned Walsh's age. So Judge George E. MacKinnon, who headed the panel, summoned Walsh in for a chat. "I just wanted to make sure he was as sharp as I remembered him," MacKinnon has said. "We got over that hurdle fast."

Walsh must build a case under particularly difficult circumstances. Because the congressional committees granted limited immunity to some key witnesses, he is barred from using any evidence brought out in their hearings. So his team of 28 lawyers, 20 FBI agents and eight IRS investigators is laboriously poring over half a million documents and has conducted some 1,000 interviews attempting to develop their own evidence of criminal misconduct. To avoid any appearance of being influenced by media coverage or popular opinion, investigators must avoid all mention of the scandal. That was easier said than done last summer, when Ollie-mania was, briefly, a national passion. "One evening," says Walsh—who in 1981 moved to Oklahoma City with his second wife, Mary, and commutes there on weekends—"my wife came home and said, 'I don't know if I should tell you this, but a woman at the beauty parlor asked for a Betsy North haircut.' " Walsh shrugs. "You can't avoid the bumper stickers."

Nor can he avoid mutterings of official impatience. New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, for one, has complained that the Walsh investigation, which has already cost more than $3.5 million, was moving at an "ad nauseam" pace. But the Swiss government did not relinquish crucial bank records until Nov. 3. When the Walsh team has thoroughly examined them, the special prosecutor may be ready to make his move—if not this month, possibly next month. Rest assured, Lawrence Walsh will deliver no indictment before its time.

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