×

The foreman of Watergate grand jury No. 1 is watching confrontations with another president

  • Vladimir Pregelj, 91, the foreman of the Watergate grand jury and former Library of Congress trade policy analyst, recalls what it was like to be at the silent center of a historic Washington crisis on March 21, 2019 in Washington, D.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey



The Washington Post
Monday, April 15, 2019

WASHINGTON — Like millions of Americans, Vladimir Pregelj has waited to learn more about the special counsel’s report.

But as few others can, the foreman of Watergate grand jury No. 1 understands the burden of working in secret for years on a high-profile investigation involving a president.

At 91, he still lives in the same Capitol Hill townhouse where he resided 55 years ago when he commuted to court to hear evidence in a special prosecutor’s investigation of Richard M. Nixon and the coverup of his campaign’s break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.

Pregelj, a retired Library of Congress researcher, is tight-lipped about President Donald Trump. But of the work behind closed doors by special counsel Robert Mueller, he said, “In my citizen’s heart, I feel the information gathered by the grand jury should be made public.”

Pregelj stands behind a letter he wrote to Nixon on behalf of the grand jury summoning — futilely — a president to testify in person before his fellow citizens.

“If we have to find out what happened, if anyone was involved, that should have come out, as far as Nixon was concerned,” Pregelj said. As for Trump, he said with a smile, “I’m not on (this) grand jury.”

Under threat of impeachment proceedings, Nixon resigned in August 1974.

“I was in a sense disappointed, because I thought with all the evidence that we had, there was enough cause for indicting Nixon. ... It was in a sense a disappointment that justice didn’t run it course,” Pregelj said.

Mueller’s office submitted its report on March 22 to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, marking the end of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the beginning of the watch to see what is released to the public.

The Justice Department announced on Monday that it expected to release a redacted version of the report on Thursday.

While Mueller has finished, several related cases were transferred to the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, and its prosecutors say that the work of the 23-member grand jury empaneled July 6, 2017 — and whose term is not set to expire until July 5 — “continues robustly.”

A hefty obligation

From his home filled with early modernist sketches and books, Pregelj recalled that his grand jury of 23 met more than 100 times its first 18 months of a two-year run, with two jurors losing their jobs as a result. Another member, a night-shift custodian at George Washington University, quit the panel, she later told a reporter, because it was too hard to be on the jury by day and the job at night and care for her 11 children.

He remembered the stylish colleague the press nicknamed “the chic lady” who “came up with things that probably should have been explored further,” and the “strange experience” of questioning senior presidential aides about obstructing justice and perjury, an unusual way of “rubbing elbows with people in the headlines.”

Most of all, he recalled the psychological pressure and moral burden of knowing so much — and being obliged to say so little — to fulfill the grand jury’s civic duty.

“We are all affected” by that obligation, Pregelj said.

“He’s a very secretive person,” said his wife, Lea Plut-Pregelj, 72, an education researcher. Married in 1980, she said it wasn’t until four years later that Pregelj talked about his time on the Watergate panel, and then not in detail.

News accounts at the time described the tall, thick-haired international trade specialist as a “good-looking intellectual,” nicknamed Miro by his co-workers.

Although federal criminal rules strictly bar grand jurors from being named, Pregelj was identified in July 1973, after John Sirica, then the chief judge the U.S. District Court of Washington, assembled the panel in open court and polled them to establish that they supported ordering the White House to explain Nixon’s refusal to turn over Oval Office tape recordings.

Seven months later, on March 1, 1974, the grand jury indicted seven top Nixon aides, including his campaign chairman and Attorney General John N. Mitchell.

Letters poured in to Pregelj that he has kept to this day.

A Wichita woman wrote to the “Grand Jury foreman” that she and many others were frustrated by “all these lawyers . . . out to get Nixon,” adding, “You all ought to be tarred and feathered.”

She continued: “Why don’t you stop this terrible thing? It is ruining our country both home and abroad! Try digging up the dirt and mistakes of former presidents. None are perfect.”

But after Nixon was pardoned by his successor President Gerald Ford on Sept. 8, 1974, a woman from Cary, N.C., wrote to Pregelj three days later saying, “This can’t happen to our country! I urge you to inform the public of the facts ... if no one else will,” adding she was “sick with outrage” at the pardoning of Nixon and the potential pardons of all Watergate defendants.

Sharp contrasts

The visibility of Pregelj and his colleagues after their appearance in open court — and the self-disclosure of the forewoman of the grand jury that investigated President Bill Clinton’s dealings with Monica Lewinsky — contrast with the continuing anonymity of Grand Jury 17-1, the Mueller grand jurors.

It was empaneled at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse on Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, seven weeks after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authorized Mueller to investigate “any links and/or coordination” between Trump’s campaign and Russian government interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

For safety and security reasons, court officials encouraged jurors early on to enter court through side doors not used by the public. Unlike the foreperson and deputy of three other grand juries working at the courthouse, the two leaders of the Mueller panel have not been identified handing up indictments in open court.

Rob Goldstone, a British music promoter who said he testified to the panel about setting up a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and senior Trump campaign officials, said jurors “were a great cross-section of people.”

“I would say of the 22, or 23 that day, half of them at least looked uninterested. A few looked really interested,” Goldstone said in a Washington Post interview last September. “They had to go back, another week, another week, and they’re still going back and listening. ... I don’t know how they stay focused on it.”

Pregelj said his grand jury interacted little with Sirica or the special prosecutor, but grew close to the assistant prosecutors who worked with them day-to-day after they were convened June 5, 1972.

After three weeks of hearing routine street and violent crimes, they got the case of the June 17 Watergate burglary. When one burglar — James McCord Jr., a former CIA officer providing security for the Nixon campaign — began cooperating, it unraveled a scheme that occupied three grand juries over more than two years.

Pregelj’s was the first and busiest. Archibald Cox, the initial special prosecutor for Watergate, wrote later in a book that its members “were truly a cross-section of the people of Washington.” Made up of 13 women and 10 men, and six white and 17 African American jurors, they ranged from their late 20s to 60s. A few were single but most were married with children.

Almost half worked for the government, and others were unemployed or retired, with only “one or two, but no more, educated for a profession,” Cox wrote. Regular government employees stayed on salary, but the rest at the time received $20 a day and 10 cents a mile for travel.

“It was simply said, you will be the foreman,” Pregelj recalled of the court’s designation.

Behind the scenes

A Slovenian-born son of a college professor, Pregelj spent four years as a refugee after World War II. He won a scholarship to St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., served in the Army, became a citizen and earned a master’s degree at Fordham University in the Bronx before joining the Library of Congress in 1957.

Behind the scenes, Watergate prosecutors and the court confronted murky questions that resonate to this day.

After Nixon’s counsel opposed appearing before the grand jury and proposing written answers to questions instead, grand jurors unanimously agreed to summon Nixon.

“I am hereby requesting you on behalf of the Grand Jury to appear before it,” Pregelj wrote Jan. 30, 1974 in a three-page, archived letter addressed to “Honorable Richard M. Nixon, The President, The White House,” and signed, “Vladimir N. Pregelj, Foreman, June, 1972 #1 Grand Jury.”

“I am sure you can appreciate our concern that receipt of written answers to written questions, without an opportunity for direct questioning by any Juror or member of the Special Prosecutor’s staff, would not only be unsatisfactory but might well fall short of the Grand Jury’s duty to the public,” Pregelj concluded.

The president and his lawyers did not accept the invitation.

Meanwhile, the second Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, opposed indicting Nixon on legal and ethical grounds, as grand jurors and some of his own team wanted to do, believing a president in office had to be impeached first by Congress and doubting if Nixon could receive a fair trial.

The view “didn’t sit well with the grand jury,” Pregelj said.

Pregelj went so far as to conduct a straw vote, in which all or nearly all jurors voted to charge Nixon. “Some raised both hands,” Pregelj remembered, they felt so strongly.

In retrospect, Jaworski prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, who worked closest with the jury, wrote in their book that Jaworski apparently wanted “not to get out ahead of public opinion, not to appear to be ‘challenging’ the President on the basis of evidence not yet in the public domain.”

Instead, he agreed to do a factually worded report for Congress and to secretly name Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator.

On March 1, 1974, when the grand jury indicted the seven top Nixon aides, it was Pregelj’s job to hand the sealed report to the court in full public view — literally handing over a bulging briefcase stuffed with tapes and other evidence prepared by Jaworski’s office.

The Jaworski report became known colloquially as the “Sirica road map,” for the judge. After lawmakers requested it, Sirica approved transmitting to the House, giving it evidence of the legal case for considering Nixon’s impeachment.

In the end, Pregelj did not recall watching the televised Senate Watergate hearings that gripped the country.

“I guess I’m not that curious,” he said.

Although Nixon while president did not come before the grand jury, in June 1975, after he was pardoned and 10 months after leaving the White House, Nixon as a private citizen met behind closed doors with Watergate prosecutors and two grand jurors near his San Clemente, Calif., home.

Transcripts of Nixon’s testimony about ongoing investigations in the scandal that toppled his presidency were released in 2011.

Pregelj was surprised.

“I was not aware of the details,” he said.