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Philip Heymann, who prosecuted Watergate and Abscam, dies at 89

Philip Heymann, who served four Democratic presidents over six decades, mostly in the Justice Department, and who helped prosecute major investigations, including Watergate and the Abscam bribery sting operation, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.

His daughter, Dr. Jody Heymann, said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Heymann served in the Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton administrations in a series of political appointments. His last role was as deputy attorney general, the second in command, in the Clinton Justice Department under Attorney General Janet Reno. In between his stints in government, he taught at Harvard Law School and wrote books on crime and terrorism, two topics in which he became an expert.

Throughout his career he often found himself going against the grain of prevailing views or practices.

In the 1960s, Heymann, then in his mid-30s and at the State Department, was outraged to learn that J. Edgar Hoover, the all-powerful director of the FBI, had ordered the surveillance of Americans abroad if he was suspicious of their leftist politics. Heymann called attention to the practice as a violation of civil liberties, which helped end it.

In 1994, while serving as President Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general and point man for criminal justice policy, he opposed some provisions in the administration’s comprehensive crime bill. In his view, these measures — imposing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, spending nearly $10 billion to build new prisons, and locking up repeat offenders for life (“three strikes and you’re out”) — would lead to mass incarceration and racial disparities and do little to stop crime. He resigned abruptly from his job before the crime bill was passed.

One of his mentors was Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. Heymann had worked for him when Cox was solicitor general in the Kennedy administration, and they became colleagues when Heymann began teaching at Harvard Law School in 1969. When Cox was appointed special prosecutor in 1973 to investigate the Watergate affair, Heymann was one of his first hires.

Heymann investigated the White House “plumbers” unit, so named because it was supposed to stop the leaking of classified information to the news media. And he was part of the legal team that successfully prosecuted John Ehrlichman, a top aide to President Richard M. Nixon, for his role in the cover-up of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington at the Watergate complex.

Cox believed that the Watergate hearings, held by the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities and headed by Sen. Sam Ervin, D-N.C., should not be televised because such publicity might jeopardize the case, but he left it to Heymann to make that argument in court.

Heymann was praised for walking a thin line between showing concern for the rights of the defendants but not over-arguing that the public should be shut out. He wrote later that he lost that effort not unintentionally, because he had wanted to protect Cox from being perceived as the man who tried to stop the nation from watching the process unfold. Televising the hearings played an important role in building the case against Nixon.

Heymann was “as close to Archibald Cox as a son,” wrote James Doyle, author of “Not Above the Law” (1977), a book about Watergate. Cox took on heroic stature after Nixon had him fired in 1973 in the Saturday Night Massacre, so-called because Nixon had first fired two top Justice Department officials who had refused to fire Cox. But even before then, Cox had been an inspiration to Heymann.

Public service, Heymann wrote in an unpublished memoir toward the end of his life, requires the sort of courage that Cox showed in standing up to Nixon.

“For those who wish to enter public service, remember that your duty runs deeper than the orders of any president,” Heymann wrote.

“Do not trade away your credibility and reputation for political favor or advancement,” he added. “Be loyal to the law, the values of the country and have the courage to stand up when others threaten those ideals.”

Philip Benjamin Heymann was born Oct. 30, 1932, in Pittsburgh. His father, Sidney, was an insurance salesman; his mother, Bessie (Kann) Heymann, was a community service volunteer.

Heymann received his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Yale University in 1954, was a Fulbright scholar at the Sorbonne in Paris, then served two years in the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, based at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1960, he clerked at the Supreme Court for Associate Justice John M. Harlan, who was noted chiefly for his many dissents in cases that restricted civil liberties.

Heymann married Ann Ross in 1954; they met at a dance in Pittsburgh in 1948, when she was 13 and he was 16, and he told a friend then that he was going to marry her. She survives him. In addition to her and their daughter, he is survived by a son, Stephen; four grandchildren; and two great-grandsons. His sister, Sidney, known as Sally, died in 1991.

Heymann’s high-profile investigations included Abscam, the FBI sting operation in the late 1970s that caught public officials on tape accepting bribes from agents posing as Arab sheikhs in return for political favors. The operation, which inspired the 2013 movie “American Hustle,” led to the convictions of a senator — Harrison A. Williams Jr., D-N.J. — as well as six members of Congress and more than a dozen others.

The investigation’s tactics were criticized as entrapment. But Heymann, who coordinated the investigation with Clarence Kelly, director of the FBI, defended those tactics, saying they had struck fear into the heart of other crooks.

“An undercover informant tells us that people are afraid to give or take bribes because they’re worried that it’s part of another Abscam,” he told the Harvard Crimson.

He later became a leading voice against the use of torture.

Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Heymann wrote a widely respected book, “Terrorism and America” (1998), in which he warned that terrorist attacks, by either foreign or domestic actors, could happen in the United States, and he spent the next several years exploring how a democracy could ward them off without restricting civil liberties.

After 9/11, he was asked to serve on government advisory boards to the intelligence community. As the George W. Bush administration was using “enhanced interrogation techniques” to try to extract information from enemy combatants, Heymann argued bluntly against the use of torture. Not only was it inhumane, he said; it was also ineffective. Over a 12-year period, he organized several gatherings of government officials on the topic and wrote three books on it.

In later years he turned his attention to trying to curtail the wide dissemination of opiates by pharmaceutical companies long before their role in fueling the opioid crisis was understood.

His daughter said in an interview for this obituary in 2019 that she had asked him what he wanted to be remembered for.

“He said, ‘Speaking truth to power,’ ” she said. “He believed in government service. And even though he held positions of consequence, he saw himself as a civil servant. He believed that we all contribute to our government.”

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