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Robert Mardian, at 82; his conviction in Watergate scandal was overturned

LOS ANGELES -- Former assistant attorney general Robert C. Mardian, whose conviction for participating in the Watergate cover-up conspiracy was overturned on appeal, has died. He was 82.

Mr. Mardian, a Phoenix resident, died of complications of lung cancer Monday at his vacation home in San Clemente, Calif., said his son Robert.

Mr. Mardian, named by President Nixon to head the internal security division of the Justice Department in 1970, left the department in May 1972 to work for the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), which was being managed by former attorney general John Mitchell.

The day after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington on June 17, 1972, Mitchell told Mr. Mardian he would be involved with CREEP's response to the Watergate matter.

Shortly thereafter, he became CREEP's attorney in a civil suit filed by the DNC against the committee.

Mr. Mardian served in that capacity about 30 days before turning the job over to Kenneth Parkinson, a lawyer whose firm handled civil litigation.

Mr. Mardian's actions during that time led to his conviction, Arnold Rochvarg, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and author of the 1995 book ``Watergate Victory: Mardian's Appeal," told the Los Angeles Times yesterday.

Rochvarg said that Mr. Mardian interviewed several people who had knowledge of, or were involved in, the Watergate break-in, including G. Gordon Liddy, a key figure in the plan to break in to the Democratic Party headquarters.

``Mardian's defense always was he was doing this as the attorney for CREEP in the civil suit," Rochvarg said. ``The government's position was he was talking to everybody as a conspirator to obstruct justice."

In March 1974, Mr. Mardian and six others -- Mitchell; top White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman; Parkinson; Charles W. Colson, a former special counsel to Nixon; and Gordon Strachen, assistant to Haldeman -- were indicted. Five went to trial.

In the indictment, Mr. Mardian was charged with one count: conspiracy to obstruct justice. The others, Rochvarg said, had other counts against them, such as perjury and obstruction of justice.

During the high-profile Watergate cover-up trial presided over by Judge John J. Sirica, Mr. Mardian contradicted much of the testimony that the prosecution's witnesses had made against him.

He denied, among other things, that Mitchell had directed him to tell Liddy to ask Attorney General Richard Kleindienst to get the Watergate burglars out of jail. He also denied that he had heard Mitchell order the destruction of Watergate documents.

On New Year's Day 1975, Mr. Mardian, Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman were convicted. Parkinson was acquitted.

For his one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, Mr. Mardian was sentenced to not less than 10 months and not more than three years in prison. All four men were free pending appeal.

In October 1976, a federal appeals court upheld the convictions of Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman but reversed Mr. Mardian's conviction and ordered a new trial, saying he should have been tried separately.

Three months later, Special Prosecutor Charles Ruff announced that Mr. Mardian would not be required to stand trial a second time.

At the time, Mr. Mardian was serving as vice president and general counsel for the Mardian Construction Co. in Phoenix.

``It's pretty late to do any correcting of the record," Mr. Mardian told the Arizona Republic in 1999, ``but I think the opinion of the appellate court was pretty clear that I shouldn't have been convicted."

Mr. Mardian, who was then corporate counsel to the Western Building Division of Perini Corp., cited a tape of a Sept. 15, 1972, conversation in which Nixon, Haldeman, and press secretary Ron Ziegler discussed attempting to keep him at bay.

``They're not talking about a co-conspirator," Mr. Mardian said in the 1999 interview. ``They're talking about a lawyer trying to get the facts."

Rochvarg, who as a law clerk was part of the team that worked on Mr. Mardian's appeal, wrote in his book that he believed Mr. Mardian should not have been convicted.

But, he said yesterday, ``the case is extremely complex and you still read different variations of what happened. There's all kinds of different theories of exactly who knew what when. So it's impossible to come to any absolute conclusions."

The youngest of 11 children, Mr. Mardian was born in Pasadena, Calif. During his freshman year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he joined the US Naval Reserve after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he was called into active duty in June 1942.

After the war, he graduated from the University of Southern California law school in 1949 and opened a law office in Pasadena.

Mr. Mardian served as western regional director for Senator Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964 and was chairman of Ronald Reagan's advisory committee during his 1966 California gubernatorial campaign. In 1968, he was the western states co-chairman for Nixon's presidential campaign.

After Nixon's inauguration, Mr. Mardian became general counsel to what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He later was appointed to be executive director of the Cabinet Committee on Education.

In addition to his son Robert, Mr. Mardian leaves his wife of 60 years, Dorothy; two other sons, Bill and Tony; two brothers, Samuel and Daniel; a sister, Florence Gertmenian; and 10 grandchildren.

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