Edwin Meese III
Edwin Meese III served as U.S. attorney general from 1985 to 1988. A close and trusted advisor to President RONALD REAGAN, Meese sought to advance the president's conservative agenda. His tenure, however, was clouded by allegations of ethical violations that eventually led to his resignation.
Meese was born on December 2, 1931, in Oakland, California. He graduated from Yale
University in 1953 and received his law degree from the University of California School of Law at Berkeley in 1958. From 1958 to 1967, Meese worked as a deputy district attorney for Alameda County, California.
From 1967 to 1969, Meese served then-California governor Ronald Reagan as secretary of legal affairs. In 1969, Meese became executive assistant to the governor, and in the following year he was made chief of staff. After Reagan left office, Meese worked in business and law, becoming the director of the Center for Criminal Justice and a professor of law at the University of California at San Diego in 1977.
When President Reagan took office in 1981, he appointed Meese as counselor to the president. In that role, Meese became an important advisor on domestic policy. Meese and Reagan shared a common agenda on legal topics. They sought to make ABORTION illegal and to restrict criminal defendants' rights, and were also in agreement on the issues of AFFIRMATIVE ACTION, and judicial activism. Meese helped to reshape the federal judiciary by advising the president on the appointments for more than half the federal judgeships.
In 1984, Reagan nominated Meese to be U.S. attorney general. Meese encountered fierce opposition from Senate Democrats, who questioned his commitment to CIVIL RIGHTS and his personal ethics. Meese admitted that he had paid no interest over 20 months on a $60,000 unsecured loan from a trust headed by John McKean, a California accountant whom he barely knew. McKean was later appointed, with the help of Meese, to the U.S. POSTAL SERVICE board of governors, a part-time position that paid $10,000 a year. This and other charges concerning Meese's personal finances contributed to a 13-month delay in his confirmation. The Senate eventually confirmed Meese, who became attorney general in March 1985.
As attorney general, Meese served as Chairman of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Drug Policy Board and was a member of the NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL. Meese
sought to establish tough policies against PORNOGRAPHY. He appointed a Commission on Pornography, which issued a controversial two-volume report in 1986 that stated that there was a causal link between violent pornography and aggressive behavior toward women. The report also claimed that nonviolent, sexually explicit material contributed to sexual violence, a conclusion that many social scientists challenged. The report broke new ground in its exploration of the problem of CHILD PORNOGRAPHY.
In 1987, Meese came under scrutiny for his role in the IRAN-CONTRA scandal, which involved a 1985 arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. The key issue in that scandal, which involved presidential aides Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, as well as other administration officials, was whether President Reagan had been aware of these activities in 1985. Meese announced on November 24, 1986, that the president had not known about the deal.
A congressional Iran-Contra committee issued its report in November 1987. It stated that Meese had failed to give the president sound legal advice. The report suggested that Meese had not fully investigated the scandal and that he might have participated in a cover-up. In addition, the committee determined that he had failed to take appropriate steps to prevent North and Poindexter from destroying critical evidence. INDEPENDENT COUNSEL Lawrence Walsh, who investigated Iran-Contra, issued a report in 1993 that stated Meese that had made a false statement in 1986 when he said that Reagan had not known about the 1985 deal. Walsh did not seek a criminal charge against Meese because he did not have a key piece of evidence, the notes of former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, until 1991.
While Iran-Contra plagued Meese, a more serious problem arose, known as the Wedtech scandal. The scandal began in February 1987 and grew to involve other highly placed members of the Reagan administration, as well as government officials in New York, where the Wedtech Corporation was located. The Wedtech Corporation sought DEFENSE DEPARTMENT contracts in the early 1980s. The company hired E. Robert Wallach, Meese's former law school classmate and personal attorney, to lobby the government on its behalf. In 1982, Meese helped Wedtech, at Wallach's urging, to get a special hearing on a $32 million Army engine contract, which the Army considered Wedtech unqualified to perform.
Soon after the meeting, the contract was awarded to Wedtech, and one of Meese's top deputies went to work for the corporation. A federal criminal investigation unraveled a string of illegal conduct that led to the conviction of Wallach and other public officials.
Independent Counsel James C. McKay investigated the Wedtech contract and other allegations of misconduct by Meese. In July 1988, he issued his report, which did not call for the filing of any criminal charges against Meese for his actions in Wedtech or his failure to file an income tax return on capital gains. McKay did conclude, however, that Meese may have been "insensitive to the appearance of impropriety."
Following the filing of McKay's 830-page report, Meese announced his resignation, effective at the end of August 1988. Meese claimed that the report vindicated his actions.
In 1992, Meese published his memoirs, With Reagan: The Inside Story. In the new millennium, Meese held the Ronald Reagan Chair in Public Policy at the HERITAGE FOUNDATION, a conservative "think tank" based in Washington, D.C. He continued to work as a consultant, writer, and lecturer on a variety of topics including public policy and the American legal system.
Barrett, John Q. 1998. All or Nothing, or Maybe Cooperation: Attorney General Power, Conduct, and Judgment in Relation to the Work of an Independent Counsel. Mercer Law Review. 49 (Winter).
Powell, H. Jefferson. 1999. The Constitution and the Attorneys General. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academy Press.