History goes on trial this week in Baltimore's federal courthouse as Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy defends himself against a $5.1 million defamation lawsuit challenging one of the more sordid theories about the infamous 1972 burglary.
Ida "Maxie" Wells contends that the revisionist history that Liddy has promulgated in recent years falsely portrays her as helping run a call girl ring from Democratic National Committee headquarters, where she worked as a secretary at the time of the break-in.
The trial that could clear her name promises a public airing of the so-called "silent coup" conspiracy theory behind Watergate, one of many that continue to circulate nearly three decades later. It also promises to reunite two of the scandal's most prominent and yet most divergent characters - the bombastic Liddy and the staid former White House counsel John W. Dean.
"This is the first time, frankly, the purpose of the Watergate break-in will be litigated in court," said John B. Williams, a Washington attorney who represents Liddy.
Dean is expected to testify for Wells, denying Liddy's salacious charge that the Watergate burglars were looking for photos in her desk that could link Dean's then-fiancee to the alleged DNC call girl operation.
Lawyers for Wells have studiously tried to keep the trial, scheduled to open tomorrow in U.S. District Court here, from becoming a broad revisitation of Watergate.
But in calling Dean as a witness, they acknowledge that to prove their case, they must disprove Liddy's version of the break-in that paints Wells as a DNC madam who kept photographs of call girls in her office desk to arrange liaisons for visiting Democratic dignitaries.
Still, in court filings, Wells' attorneys have said the case should stay narrowly focused on the question of whether she was defamed by speeches Liddy delivered in 1996, one at James Madison University in Virginia and one aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.
"Liddy was in charge of the break-in; he of all people knew why the break-in was planned," they said in court papers. Delving into various theories now about the motivation behind crime that led to the fall of a president, they also argued, "is analogous today to asking the Marines to re-invade Vietnam to see if the war could be won if fought a different way."
In the story of Watergate, Liddy was the tough guy, a former FBI agent who offered to kill or be killed if it would help President Richard M. Nixon. When investigators closed in after the burglary he helped orchestrate, Liddy was the one who stayed silent and received the harshest prison sentence - serving more than four years.
Dean, with the stone face of a banker, was the one who went public. He spoke about the cancer eating at the presidency, first as a private warning inside the White House then publicly, famously, in testimony before the televised Senate Watergate hearings with his striking wife, Maureen, sitting behind him.
Dean also went to prison, though for only four months after cooperating with prosecutors. He and his wife now live in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he is an investment banker.
After prison, Liddy, now living in Prince George's County, resurrected himself as an outspoken talk radio host and a fixture on the conservative lecture circuit, paid to tell his version on Nixon's downfall.
For most of the past quarter-century, the woman whose lawsuit will bring the two men together after years of animus was little more than a footnote in the dramatic scandal that made Liddy and Dean household names.
Maxie Wells came to Washington in early 1972 from a Baptist college in her home state of Mississippi. She was 23 and moved to Washington to work at the DNC as an administrative aide to R. Spencer Oliver, executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen.
Oliver's phone was one of those tapped in the first of two break-ins at DNC headquarters. In early newspaper accounts and histories - if Wells was mentioned at all - she was described only as Oliver's secretary, someone who also used the telephone line that was under surveillance from a room in a Howard Johnson's hotel room across the street from the Watergate complex.
As the investigation unfolded in the early 1970s, Wells was interviewed by the FBI and also gave testimony to congressional committees. But she quickly faded from view. In 1976, she was an assistant to Democrat Jimmy Carter while he was running for president and became his personal secretary when he went to the White House.
In seeking to debunk the call girl theory, Wells' attorneys have noted that the detailed background check required for her to work at the White House would have turned up any misconduct while she was at the DNC - or that Democratic officials would have stepped in to shield Carter from an embarrassing flap.
"It defies belief that if there were an active prostitution ring operating out of the DNC in 1971-72, in which [Wells] played a conspicuous role, no Democratic worker or official came forward to protect President Carter from the political scandal of having as his secretary an alleged former madam, who supposedly pimped for countless Democratic bigwigs," attorney David M. Dorsen of Washington said in court filings.
For roughly a decade before she filed her defamation lawsuit against Liddy in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Wells was working on a doctoral program in English literature at Louisiana State University. Dorsen said last week that Wells has completed her doctoral degree and is teaching.
He said she is prepared to go to trial, even if that means rehashing allegations she has derided as untrue and hurtful.
"It's never pleasant," Dorsen said. "This is what a plaintiff has to do in a libel case, and she's ready and willing."
Liddy's lawyers aren't satisfied by that. They note that Wells took no legal action previously, even though allegations about her association with a DNC call girl ring have circulated since the mid-1980s.
The prostitution theory first was raised in the book "Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA," by author Jim Hougan. It was repeated in the 1991 book "Silent Coup: Removal of a President," by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin.
The books were largely dismissed by mainstream Watergate historians, who generally believe the burglars were looking for information on Nixon's political foes. But Liddy says the two books convinced him that Dean had an unseen hand in orchestrating the burglaries as part of an effort to protect his future wife from scandal.
Dean had a different reaction to the allegations. He and his wife filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit against St. Martin's Press, the publisher of "Silent Coup," along with the authors and Liddy, saying the charges of prostitution were patently false.
The Dean case, which stretched on through most of the 1990s in federal court in the District of Columbia, was eventually settled by each of the parties involved except Liddy. The case against him was dropped before it was to go to trial.
Liddy's lawyers said last week that he has no intention of settling the Wells case, either, and is looking forward to letting a jury weigh in on the possible motives behind a burglary that largely faded into the background as the Watergate scandal in the 1970s became more about the cover-up and Nixon's involvement.
U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz initially dismissed Wells' suit, ruling that she was an involuntary public figure. But a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel said the case should go to trial - noting that even though she was caught up in dramatic public events, the one-time secretary still was a private person.
At trial, defense lawyers want to present testimony from Alfred Baldwin, who was part of Liddy's team stationed at the Howard Johnson's surveillance post and who listened to the tapped calls on the phone sometimes used by Wells during her short stint at the DNC.
In previous depositions, Baldwin has said that many of the conversations he listened to involved sex and arranging dates. For casual listeners, "eight out of 10 would have said, 'That's a call-girl ring,'" Baldwin has testified. Transcripts of the calls have never been made public.
But Baldwin also has said that none of the phone calls he remembers involving Maxie Wells concerned prostitution. In her own depositions, Wells has said she remembers being alarmed when she learned about the wiretap only because she knew some of her calls involved gossip about boyfriends and dates.
"I remember, in general, at the time that all of it was going on, being worried about the phone having been tapped and what I might have said on the phone," Wells testified in 1997, recalling how her days as a young DNC aide suddenly collided with the crisis.
"I knew that I had used [the] phone to make personal calls and, you know, I talked to my boyfriends, I gossiped with my friends," she said. "I didn't know what I might have said I might be embarrassed about later."