Tuesday, May 23, 2006

DEATH OF AN OLD COP

By Paul Levine

Martin Dardis died last week at age 83.

If you’re from Florida or if you remember Watergate, you may recognize the name. But then again, maybe not. Marty’s role in one of the most significant events in American history has been largely ignored.

Simply stated, without Marty Dardis, the “third-rate burglary” known as Watergate would have remained just that, a little remembered political brouhaha inside the Beltway.

In 1972, Marty was chief investigator in the Dade County State Attorney’s Office. A World War II veteran with a Silver Star, a dapper dresser, and a dogged cop of the old school, Marty traced the sequentially numbered $100 bills found in the Watergate burglars’ pockets. The trail led to a bank in Miami where one of the burglars had deposited a check endorsed by an official of the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon.

It was the missing link in the investigation of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. With the acquiescence of State Attorney Richard Gerstein, Marty turned over what he knew to Bernstein and soon the two reporters had nailed their story and the President. And while the journalists made their reputations (and their fortunes) from “All the President’s Men” and the subsequent film, Marty went about his job under Gerstein, then State Attorney Janet Reno. He worked undercover drug investigations and was forced to move his family from Florida when their lives were threatened. After retiring from law enforcement, he handled investigations for Sports Illustrated, helping to uncover gambling and point-shaving scandals.

I crossed paths with Marty both before and after his brush with history. In 1970, I was a rookie reporter with The Miami Herald. Fresh out of Penn State, I had never been in a courtroom when my city editor assigned me to cover the criminal court beat. (The previous reporter had bolted to take a job with the National Enquirer at twice the salary). Marty Dardis took me under his wing. He was an excellent source, especially for someone who knew virtually nothing about law enforcement and needed a street map to find the Justice Building.

Several years later, as a young lawyer, I represented Marty (and State Attorney Gerstein) in potential litigation against producers of the film version of “All the President’s Men.” My clients were upset that Woodward and Bernstein had taken credit in their book for discoveries made by the Dade County investigators. Now, they were afraid the movie would do the same and might even ridicule their efforts. I crossed swords with the producers’ Century City lawyers, but was at a distinct disadvantage. We had no access to the script, and the movie had not yet been released. In one letter to opposing counsel, I expressed my “grave concern that the film will portray my clients in a false and defamatory light.”

(Yes, we lawyers always have "grave concerns." It's similar to "grave danger." In "A Few Good Men," you'll remember Jack Nicholson asking if there is any other kind).

The producers' lawyers would not give us access to the rough cut, and we took no action pending release of the film. When they saw it, Messrs. Gerstein and Dardis were not all that displeased. (As I recall, Marty’s biggest complaint was that he was more handsome than Ned Beatty, the actor who portrayed him).

I can’t help but thinking that if Marty were on the case, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby (should a man over 40 still be called "Scooter?"), Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and a couple dozen other politicians and lobbyists would already be in prison...and some journalist would be taking credit.

Paul Levine

4 comments:

  1. Paul, what a fascinating story! I've always said that your books are filled with interesting characters many of whom are funny and flawed, but the reader loves them all because of their humanity. Sounds like Marty would fit right into the pages of your next novel.

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  2. Miami is packed with memorable characters. Marty Dardis' boss, State Attorney Dick Gerstein,was fascinating in his own right. Both came from the "greatest generation," battle-tested and scarred World War II vets. Marty won the Silver Star for bravery at the Battle of the Bulge. Gerstein, an aviator, lost an eye when his plane was shot down over Germany. No wonder these two worked so well together. Tough guys from the old school. And there I was, youngest reporter at the Miami Herald (21 but looking more like a Bar Mitzvah boy of 13), listening to their stories, learning every day. Simpler times, straighter lines, good versus evil writ in large type.

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  3. Thanks for the great story, Paul. It's the kind of history I love most - as much about the how and the why and the character of the people involved, as about the events.

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  4. Oh, Paul--we need Marty now more than ever. I saw ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN on PBS the other night, and it made me get a little teary thinking about exactly what you've said here.

    Thank you for this!

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