Iran-Contra prosecutor and former ABA president Lawrence Walsh is dead at 102

Lawrence E. Walsh, a former prosecutor, federal judge and BigLaw partner who served as president of both the American Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association during an achievement-filled career, has died at the age of 102.

Perhaps best known for his work as a court-appointed independent counsel investigating the administration of President Ronald Reagan concerning what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, Walsh also served as counsel to Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, deputy attorney general in the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Paris peace talks negotiator during the Vietnam War, reports the New York Times (reg. req.). A profile by the American Law Institute (PDF), of which Walsh was a longtime member, provides additional details.

Born in Canada, Walsh grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. His father died when Walsh was 14 years old, and the attorney-to-be earned money to pay tuition for both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from Columbia University by working as a merchant seaman over the summers, the ALI profile recounts.

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1935, Walsh began his legal career working as an assistant prosecutor in the office of then-Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey. Following stints as assistant counsel and counsel to Dewey after Dewey became governor, Walsh was a federal judge in the Southern District of New York and deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower administration. In 1961, he joined Davis Polk & Wardwell as a senior partner. Before retiring in 1982 he headed both the New York State Bar Association in the 1960s and the ABA in the 1970s. In 1986, he came out of retirement in his mid-70s to head the Iran-Contra investigation. It continued for nearly seven years at a cost of some $37 million, but it was not, for a variety of reasons, considered a resounding success.

Himself a Republican, Walsh came under fire by party leaders for his aggressive handling of the probe. He said in his 1997 book, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up that he had considered indicting Reagan in 1992. However, Walsh didn’t do so, lacking proof the president was lying when he said he didn’t know about money being provided to the Nicaraguan Contras. This happened in connection with a plan to violate an embargo and sell arms to Iran in exchange for help obtaining the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, recounts a Bloomberg article.

Although some lesser players were charged and convicted, Walsh said a congressional grant of immunity to key figures in the Iran-Contra affair undermined his ability to hold those at the top accountable.

“Walsh was an honorable prosecutor who lost his way during a harrowing odyssey frustrated by Reagan’s forgetfulness, [national security adviser John] Poindexter’s code of silence and the congressional grants of immunity,” wrote journalist Lou Cannon a biography of Reagan published in 2001.

Relocating in his wife’s hometown of Oklahoma City in his later years, Walsh became counsel to Crowe & Dunlevy there. He is survived by five children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, according to the ALI profile. His wife of 47 years predeceased him in late 2012.

A funeral will be held in Oklahoma City next week, and a memorial service is planned for a later date in New York City.

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