Herbert Kalmbach, ‘most mysterious figure’ in the Watergate scandal, dies at 95

California lawyer helped channel money to five defendants in break-in

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Herbert Kalmbach, a personal attorney to President Richard Nixon who was drawn into the Watergate scandal as an alleged bagman and later went to prison for illegal political fundraising that included the peddling of an ambassadorship, died Sept. 15 in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 95.

The death was announced by the family in a notice published in the Los Angeles Times.

Kalmbach had the distinction, it was written in the New York Times in 1973, of being “the most mysterious figure among the strangely assorted cast of characters in the Watergate affair.” A California lawyer, he was by all accounts a loyal servant to the president, low-key and capable in matters political as well as private, and was virtually unknown to the public before the Watergate investigation that drove his client from the White House.

Kalmbach had met Nixon through a mutual acquaintance and had supported his political ambitions since Nixon, as vice president, made his first, unsuccessful bid for the Oval Office in 1960. Two years later, Kalmbach stood by his candidate when Nixon lost a race for California governor and prematurely declared his political career to be over.

Nixon’s election to the White House in 1968 — and his choice of Kalmbach as his private attorney — propelled Kalmbach’s legal practice and burnished his personal prestige.

Kalmbach was entrusted with Nixon’s taxes, his estate planning and the acquisition of the lush property in San Clemente, Calif., that became known during the Nixon administration as the Western White House. Kalmbach also displayed considerable and sometimes controversial skill in courting political donors, raising a reported $18 million for his client’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns.

Kalmbach would serve six months in prison after pleading guilty in February 1974 to felony charges of improper fundraising during the 1970 mid-term elections and a misdemeanor charge of offering a European ambassadorship in exchange for a $100,000 donation. But he insisted that he did not knowingly participate in any illegality stemming from the notorious events of June 17, 1972.

On that day, five burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington as part of a scheme to spy on Nixon’s political enemies. The operation and attempt to cover it up were linked to high-ranking Nixon administration and campaign officials.

Among them was Kalmbach, who helped channel more than $200,000 to the Watergate defendants. He professed that he had understood the payments — later widely regarded as hush money — to be for “humanitarian” purposes.