WASHINGTON (AP) – Attorney Sam Dash, whose probing questions during televised Senate hearings into the Watergate scandal made him a household name in the 1970s, died Saturday after a lengthy illness.

Dash, who had been hospitalized since January, died at the Washington Hospital Center at the age of 79, according to family members.

The former chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate became known across the nation for his televised, penetrating interrogations into President Nixon’s secret taping system.

Although a lifelong Democrat, Dash over the years cultivated a reputation for independence and as an ardent advocate for ethics in the legal profession.

For nearly four decades, Dash specialized in constitutional law and legal ethics at Georgetown University Law Center.

where he taught and directed its Institute for Criminal Law and Procedures. He taught his last class in January shortly before being hospitalized.

As the lead attorney on Sen. Sam Ervin’s Watergate committee, Dash directed some of the most intense questioning of White House officials during televised hearings into the scandal that led to President Nixon’s resignation in August, 1974.

During a pivotal moment in the 1973 hearings, Dash pressed White House aide Alexander Butterfield on who knew about a secret taping system in the Oval Office.

“The president …,” Butterfield replied. The tapes exposed the fact that Nixon had been closely involved in trying to cover up the scandal.

Dash again made headlines – and angered some Democrats – in 1994 when he agreed to serve as the ethics adviser to independent counsel Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton.

But he resigned four years later, saying that Starr “unlawfully intruded” and exceeded his authority by aggressively advocating that Clinton be impeached. Dash, in fact, helped draft the independent counsel law that Congress passed as part of the post-Watergate reforms aimed at assuring impartial investigation of issues involving the executive branch.

“As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict. Other lawyers feel this way too, but it is an absolute mission with me,” said Dash in explaining his resignation to Starr.

Later Starr said he regretted the “gentle disagreement” he had with Dash. “I love Sam. I respect him. I admire him. He’s a total man of principle,” said Starr.

Recently, Dash had expressed concern about the threats to individual freedoms as a result of the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism.

In a book on the Fourth Amendment, scheduled to be released next month, Dash complains about “the Bush administration’s increasing intrusions on the privacy rights of American citizens in the post Sept. 11 world,” according to David Molyneaux, his son-in-law, citing a quote on the book’s cover.

A native of Camden, N.J., Dash was an Air Force officer in World War II, and was a graduate of Harvard Law School.

At 30, Dash became a district attorney in Philadelphia, but later turned to private law practice. In the 1970s, he helped Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in devising the American Bar Association’s ethical standards for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers.

Dash is survived by his wife, Sara, of Chevy Chase, Md., and daughters Judi Dash of Beachwood, Ohio, and Rachel Dash of Charleston, W.Va.

AP-ES-05-29-04 1738EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.