Gerald Ford’s presidential pardon of Richard Nixon ensured that the disgraced president never faced legal consequences for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up. But a lot of people in Nixon’s orbit did go to prison—including Herbert Kalmbach, Nixon’s personal lawyer, who raised a slush fund to finance campaign sabotage and helped pay hush money to the Watergate burglars.
Kalmbach was a figure most voters would not have known about if not for his involvement in a presidential scandal. In Kalmbach’s case, it was the Watergate scandal, which began when five men were arrested on June 17, 1972 for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex.
The Watergate scandal wasn’t just about the burglars’ attempt to bug the DNC during President Nixon’s reelection campaign. It was also about the illegal cover-up to hide any connection between the break-in and Nixon’s team, as well as the revelation that the Watergate break-in was just one in a series of “dirty tricks” the president’s men carried out to sabotage perceived enemies.
Kalmbach wasn’t involved in the break-in itself, but he did play a role in the cover-up and the dirty tricks.
“He was basically Nixon’s bagman,” says Ken Hughes, a research specialist at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “He got money where Nixon wanted money spent. He was the source of the money for the slush fund that paid for sabotage and spying activities on the Democratic presidential candidates in 1972.”
This spying and sabotage involved planting spies in other presidential campaigns, following candidates’ families, forging fake documents on a candidate’s letterhead and leaking false information to the press, among other tactics. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported in All the President’s Men that Nixon’s agents called this practice “ratf***ing.” It was meant to confuse and disorient a campaign so that the campaign staff had a difficult time telling where the sabotage was even coming from.
Take Senator Edward Muskie’s campaign to be the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate. In April of that year, one of his fundraising dinners was besieged by cash-on-delivery liquor, flowers, pizzas, cakes and entertainers that his campaign hadn’t ordered. During his New Hampshire primary campaign, people who claimed they were with the “Harlem for Muskie Committee” called voters in the middle of the night and told them to vote Muskie “because he’d been so good for the black man”—a racist attempt to turn white voters against Muskie. The senator also suspected that members of his family were being followed.
Kalmbach raised the slush fund money that paid for this type of sabotage, and paid some $45,000 of that money to Donald Segretti, a man who helped carry out these dirty tricks. Kalmbach also raised and funneled over $200,000 to the five Watergate burglars and two men who’d orchestrated the break-in, former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy and former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt.
“He supplied the hush money, the money that was paid to keep the defendants from revealing activities that Nixon didn’t want revealed,” Hughes says.
As a lawyer, Kalmbach was involved in a shocking number of crimes related to his client’s reelection campaign. Yet because of a plea deal Kalmbach made with the Watergate prosecutors, he was only convicted of a small portion of the crimes prosecutors could have charged him with.
In exchange for cooperating with prosecutors and pleading guilty to two other crimes he’d committed—illegally raising $3.9 million for the 1970 congressional midterms and promising someone an ambassador position in exchange for a $100,000 donation—the prosecutors agreed not to bring additional charges as long as he didn’t lie under oath. With this deal, Kalmbach received a light six-to-18-month prison sentence and a fine of $10,000. He ended up only serving six months.
Kalmbach may have implicated many others in the Watergate scandal, but he never implicated Nixon in any of his illegal activities. Despite his apparent loyalty, Nixon reportedly couldn’t get over the fact that Kalmbach had cooperated with the Watergate prosecutors in the first place.