Monday, Feb. 28, 2005 | 11 a.m.
A chief Senate Watergate investigator told "60 Minutes" that Howard Hughes gave a $100,000 bribe to President Nixon and that may have led to the break-in that started the chain of events that culminated with Nixon's resignation in 1974, according to a report aired Sunday.
Terry Lenzner, who was assistant chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, said Hughes, then owner of the Desert Inn and several other Las Vegas properties, funneled $100,000 to Nixon through Nixon friend Charles "Bebe" Rebozo.
The money, Lenzner said, was for favorable treatment for Hughes' airline and casino holdings.
Nixon's senior advisers treated Hughes "as if the law did not apply to him," Lenzner said.
"They had given Rebozo $100,000 in cash for the president," Lenzner told "60 Minutes." "for Nixon personally."
The money went through Las Vegas resident Robert Maheu, who for 17 years was Hughes' right-hand man. Maheu said there was nothing nefarious -- it was a campaign donation.
He told "60 Minutes" that he went to Rebozo's home and gave him $50,000 cash in an envelope -- a "big envelope."
Maheu, who never saw Hughes in the 17 years he worked for him, told the Sun that the money "was not a bribe. In those days, cash contributions were legal."
Maheu told the Sun that Hughes contributed to both Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate.
Each candidate received a $50,000 check from Hughes through the election committees, Maheu said. Each also received $50,000 in cash.
Once Nixon took office, Hughes ordered Maheu through phone calls and memos to give a sizeable sum of money to Rebozo, Maheu told the Sun.
Half of the money was for Nixon's campaign, Maheu said. The other half "was to help congressional campaigns in which Nixon might be interested in," he said. Lenzner, now chairman of Investigative Group International, a high-powered Washington investigations firm, said that if the money had gone to a "legitimate" political campaign, it would have been appropriate. "This, however, was a bribe, in effect, through Mr. Rebozo to the president."
CBS showed a chart prepared by Senate investigators showing that the money went through a maze of bank accounts and concluded that $46,000 of it was spent in Nixon's Key Biscayne house on a putting green, a pool table and a fireplace.
"The money was not used for what it was intended," Maheu said.
Lenzner said that he believes the Watergate burglary could have been because the Democratic National Committee elected as chairman Larry O'Brien. O'Brien had previously been hired by Maheu to lobby for Hughes.
Lenzner said "Nixon assumed he (O'Brien) knew about" the $100,000 and thinks the break-in was to find out how much the DNC chairman knew.
"So he (Nixon) could be thinking, 'Gosh, I bet, you know, if O'Brien was tied into the Hughes organization, maybe he knows about the things we did for Hughes on the casinos, on the airlines,' " said Lenzner, who said he is certain it was a "significant" part of the reason for the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate building.
Although Lenzner said he wrote a report of his theory about the contribution, it was never included in the congressional Watergate report. "60 Minutes" said there was speculation that was done to obscure Hughes' donations to other Republicans and Democrats.
While there's no evidence that Nixon and Hughes met each other, there is a tie.
In 1956 while Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, Hughes made a $205,000 loan to Nixon's businessman brother, Donald.
Details of that loan emerged during the 1960 presidential campaign. Nixon himself believed that the Hughes loan cost him the election narrowly won by John F. Kennedy.
"60 Minutes" reported that Nixon had ordered various aides, including John Dean, H.F. Haldeman and Charles Colson, to check out the link between O'Brien and Hughes for more than a year before the Watergate break-in.
"Let's face it," Maheu said. "If I were the recipient of $100,000 in cash, the possibility that that may surface, it would bother me. I think it would bother any human being."
And Maheu told "60 Minutes" that his boss repeatedly told him, "Bob, remember that there is no person in the world that I can't either buy or destroy."
Hughes died in 1976, never quite understanding what Watergate was all about, his aides have said. Nixon died in 1994, carrying his knowledge of the scandal to his grave.
"They both thought they were above the law," Lenzner said.
Lenzner noted another similarity:
"They're both obsessive. Both paranoid, both thinking everybody's out to get them."