COLUMBUS, Ohio – Jeb Stuart Magruder, a Watergate conspirator who claimed in later years to have heard President Richard Nixon order the office break-in, has died. He was 79.
Magruder died May 11 in Danbury, Connecticut, Hull Funeral Service director Jeff Hull said Friday.
Magruder, a businessman when he began working for the Republican president, later became a minister, serving in California, Ohio and Kentucky. He also served as a church fundraising consultant.
He spent seven months in prison for lying about the involvement of Nixon’s re-election committee in the 1972 break-in at Washington’s Watergate complex, which eventually led to the president’s resignation.
In a 2008 interview, Magruder told the Associated Press he had long ago come to peace with his place in history and didn’t let the occasional notoriety bother him. The interview came after he pleaded guilty to reckless operation of a motor vehicle following a 2007 car crash.
“I don’t worry about Watergate, I don’t worry about news articles,” Magruder said. “I go to the court, I’m going to be in the paper – I know that.”
Magruder, who moved to suburban Columbus in 2003, served as Nixon’s deputy campaign director, an aide to Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and deputy communications director at the White House.
In 2003, Magruder said he was meeting with John Mitchell, the former attorney general running the Nixon re-election campaign, when he heard the president tell Mitchell over the phone to go ahead with the plan to break into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building.
Magruder previously had gone no further than saying that Mitchell approved the plan to get into the Democrats’ office and bug the telephone of the party chairman, Larry O’Brien.
Magruder made his claims in a PBS documentary and an Associated Press interview.
He said he met with Mitchell on March 30, 1972, and discussed a break-in plan by G. Gordon Liddy, finance counsel at the re-election committee and a former FBI agent. Mitchell asked Magruder to call Haldeman to see “if this is really necessary.”
Haldeman said it was, Magruder said, and then asked to speak to Mitchell. The two men talked, and then “the president gets on the line,” Magruder said.
Magruder told the AP he knew it was Nixon “because his voice is very distinct, and you couldn’t miss who was on the phone.”
He said he could hear Nixon tell Mitchell, “John, ... we need to get the information on Larry O’Brien, and the only way we can do that is through Liddy’s plan. And you need to do that.”
Historians dismiss the notion as unlikely.
“There is just no evidence that Richard Nixon directly ordered the Watergate break-in,” legal historian Stanley Kutler told the AP in 2007. “Did Magruder hear otherwise? I doubt it.”
Magruder stuck to his guns in the 2008 AP interview, saying historians had it wrong.