Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh spoke to reporters outside US District Court in Washington in 1989.
Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh spoke to reporters outside US District Court in Washington in 1989.
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Lawrence E. Walsh, a former federal judge and a mainstay of the US legal establishment who as an independent counsel exposed the lawbreaking in the Reagan administration that gave rise to the Iran-Contra scandal, died Wednesday at his home in Oklahoma City. He was 102.

Few lawyers had as long and varied a career in both the public and private spheres as Mr. Walsh. Besides sitting on the US bench, he was a prosecutor, litigator, counsel to Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, deputy attorney general under President Eisenhower, and negotiator at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War.

But it was the Iran-Contra scandal that put him in the public eye as never before. Appointed in 1986 by the judiciary as an independent counsel, Mr. Walsh, a lifelong Republican and an early supporter of President Reagan, came out of retirement at age 75 to unravel a complicated affair that reached from the White House to Tehran to counterrevolutionary strongholds in the mountains of Nicaragua.

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At the heart of it were the clandestine efforts of Reagan administration officials to sell arms to Iran, ostensibly to help secure the release of hostages in the Middle East and then use the profits to give covert support to Nicaraguan rebel forces trying to topple the Marxist rulers there known as Sandinistas. Congress had prohibited aid to the rebels, known as Contras.

Mr. Walsh spent more than six years and about $37 million on the investigation, the duration and expense of which became ammunition for his critics. They portrayed him as a modern-day Inspector Javert, a relentless, stiff-necked prosecutor who had applied to a highly political event the kind of law-enforcement template he used when he was a rackets-busting New York prosecutor.

His supporters, however, saw him as a model of rectitude, as a public servant trying to uphold the law and demonstrate that powerful government officials were not above it.

In the end, he won convictions, but many were overturned, and six defendants were pardoned by Reagan’s successor, George W. Bush, who had been vice president during the events of Iran-Contra.

Mr. Walsh belatedly tried to confront his critics. Abandoning his earlier reserve, he called many Reagan administration officials brazenly deceptive.

In a 1997 memoir, “Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up,” he concluded that Reagan must have known of the basic details of the Iran-Contra operation and that the president’s advisers had tried to shield him by concealing records and personal notes. That shield — a “firewall,” as Mr. Walsh described it — was only reinforced by Bush’s pardons.

“What set Iran-contra apart from previous political scandals,” he wrote, “was that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law being applied to perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”

The linchpin of the Iran-Contra scheme was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North, a 43-year-old Marine and member of the White House’s National Security Council who destroyed documents and arranged for others to be smuggled from the White House in the underwear of his secretary, Fawn Hall.

But appearing before Congress in the summer of 1987, erect in his beribboned olive-green uniform, North was defiant rather than contrite, arguing that his efforts had been in the cause of freedom and anti-Communism. His testimony, on national television, brought him instant, polarizing fame. His military bearing, forthright manner and professions of patriotism won many admirers, but to his detractors he was an arrogant lawbreaker seeking refuge behind a patriotic façade and a Marine uniform.

Brought to trial, North was convicted, along with Admiral John Poindexter, a former national security adviser.

Mr. Walsh’s task had been complicated by the eagerness of Congress to hold its own investigation and offer immunity to witnesses. And when North and Poindexter appealed their convictions, a court overturned them, saying the verdicts may have been tainted by witnesses’ testimony before Congress.

Caspar W. Weinberger, who had been defense secretary, was charged with concealing knowledge of the events but was pardoned by Bush before a trial.

The Iran-Contra investigation began a long debate as to the wisdom of the independent counsel law, which authorized the appointment of special prosecutors. Some argued that under the law, enacted by Congress after the Watergate scandal brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974, special prosecutors could transform political disputes into criminal acts, and that with unlimited resources and a narrow task they would feel pressure to bring criminal charges.

The issue provoked another furor in the 1990s, with the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton. Democrats accused Kenneth W. Starr, the prosecutor in that case, of vast overreaching in pursuing criminal allegations stemming from an Arkansas real estate venture. Having seen both parties stung by the law, Congress allowed it to lapse after an unsuccessful effort to impeach Clinton based on Starr’s findings.

Judge George E. MacKinnon, one of the three US judges who chose Mr. Walsh as independent counsel, said to NPR in 1995, the year he died, that he was incensed at the criticism leveled at Mr. Walsh.

“The reason Republicans are against him is because he convicted Republicans,” said MacKinnon, a Republican. He said Mr. Walsh had sacrificed a good life in semi-retirement to serve the nation. “No one could have done it better,” he said.

Tall, elegant and impeccably turned out almost every day in a dark suit and tie and white shirt, Mr. Walsh was often described as resembling a character in a Louis Auchincloss novel about high-caste lawyers in New York. In fact, Lawrence Edward Walsh was born in the fishing hamlet of Port Maitland, Nova Scotia, the son of a Canadian country doctor who moved to Queens for a more prosperous life. Mr. Walsh, who was 2 years old at the time, became a naturalized US citizen eight years later. His father died when Lawrence was 14.

After graduating from Flushing High School, he worked his way through Columbia College (class of 1932) and Columbia’s law school, spending summers as a seaman in the Merchant Marine. Despite hopes of becoming an estate lawyer, Mr. Walsh, at 24, joined a special state investigation of corruption among Brooklyn prosecutors.

That led to a job with Dewey, who had been elected Manhattan district attorney in 1937 and begun assembling a team of 70 fresh-faced assistant district attorneys to go after racketeers and corrupt Tammany Hall politicians. Judges called them “the boy scouts.” Mr. Walsh had recently married Maxine Winton, a former Columbia student from Tampa.

Mr. Walsh said in a 1987 interview that he had been chosen in part because of Dewey’s desire for staff diversity; Dewey had hired the office’s first black prosecutor and then sought Republican Catholics. “The joke was that in one week he hired Jim O’Malley, Florence Kelley, and me, and we were all Protestant,” Mr. Walsh said.

Mr. Walsh teamed with another young lawyer, William P. Rogers, who became attorney general under Eisenhower and secretary of state under Nixon.

Mr. Walsh left the district attorney’s office in 1941 to work for the private firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. But with Dewey’s election to the governorship of New York the next year, he followed his mentor to Albany, serving as an assistant counsel and then chief counsel.

In the early 1950s, he was general counsel of a waterfront commission that was credited with routing organized crime from the docks near New York Harbor. Eisenhower appointed him to the federal bench in Manhattan in 1954. There he forged a reputation as harsh sentencer, especially in narcotics cases. For years afterward, many of his associates continued to call him Judge Walsh.

When Rogers became attorney general in 1957, Mr. Walsh resigned from the bench and joined him as chief deputy. He oversaw the selection of federal judges (he recommended Potter Stewart, an Ohio judge, for the Supreme Court), and the landmark integration of the public schools in Little Rock, Ark.

After the Democrats regained the White House in 1960, he returned to Davis Polk as a senior partner and became a leading corporate litigator representing companies like General Mills, AT&T, and ITT.

As American Bar Association president, Mr. Walsh was criticized for endorsing two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees, Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. in 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. Both were deemed unqualified and rejected by the Senate.

The other major criticism he endured came from his representation of the pharmaceutical company Richardson-Merrell, of which he was a director. The company made Bendectin, a morning-sickness drug that many women claimed caused birth defects. He was assailed by plaintiffs’ lawyers for hardball tactics, and after he left the company it was found liable for millions of dollars in damages.

Mr. Walsh’s first wife, Maxine, died in 1964. In 1965, he married Mary Alma Porter. She died in December 2012. Mr. Walsh had moved to Oklahoma City after retiring in 1982.

He leaves two daughters from his first marriage, Barbara Marie Walsh and Janet Maxine Walsh; a daughter from his second marriage, Elizabeth Porter Walsh; two stepchildren; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In his book, Mr. Walsh said that he had found a model for his time as independent counsel in the Iran-Contra case in Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” in which a fisherman labors long and hard to catch a marlin. When he does, he lashes it to the side of his skiff, only to have sharks strip the flesh before he gets to shore.

“As the independent counsel, I sometimes felt like the old man,” he wrote. “More often I felt like the marlin.”