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McKay: unflappable, apolitical

      'You could not have someone better suited to be an independent counsel.'
Ted Voorhees, McKay's colleague

Colleagues say counsel right for job

By David Willman
Mercury News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — James C. McKay, the federal special prosecutor who spent 14 months investigating Attorney General Edwin Meese, is known as a fair-minded boss, a determined worker and a top courtroom litigator.

But it is McKay's lack of partisan ideology that served him best as a special prosecutor, according to those who worked for him during the Meese probe and an earlier prosecution of former White House aide Lyn Nofziger.

When emotion-charged disputes arose arrong subordinate officials in the office, "Jim's approach was calm, cool — 'What are the facts'" assistant prosecutor Susan Eender said.

Indeed, the only public sign of anger McKay has shown throughout the Meese case came last week, when he learned that an abridged copy of his 830-page final report had been leaked, in violation of a court order. McKay issued a terse statement pledging to "seek sanctions against the person or persons responsible."

Report likely to be critical

The report is to be unsealed Friday, and sources familiar with it say it will paint an unflattering portrait of Meese's ethics — despite Meese's repeated claims that he has been vindicated by McKay's decision not to seek an indictment.

McKay investigated aspects of Meese's personal finances and official actions, including his associations with San Francisco attorney e. robert wallach (who prefers his name spelled in lower-case letters); with the scandal-tarred Wedtech Corp.; and with an aborted Middle East oil-pipeline project.

McKay, 71, was born in South Pasadena, but he has lived almost all of his life in the Washington area. He majored in agriculture at Cornell and later attended night law classes at Georgetown. After serving with the Navy during World War II, McKay joined the firm of Covington & Burling, now Washington's biggest law firm.

'He was articulate'

"He was articulate and very bright; he was a mature person," recalled Howard C. Westwood, one of McKay's first bosses at the firm.

When McKay was still a law clerk, Westwood said, he assigned him to conduct research on cases involving the Civil Aeronautics Board.

"He had a peculiar facility for litigation," Westwood said. "He was imaginative and persistent and thorough."

Of equal importance to McKay's success as a trial lawyer, said Westwood and others, was his demeanor.

"He's very, very charming and courtly," said Ted Voorhees, a colleague of McKay's at the Covington firm. "He has never believed that one performs as a good trial lawyer by being nasty and vicious. You could not have someone better suited to be an independent counsel."

Few public comments

McKay has eschewed the limelight throughout his investigations of Meese. His public comments on the case are rare and terse. At midweek, McKay was sending word through aides that he would not grant any interviews when his report was unsealed.

McKay, married with three children, lives in Chevy Chase, Md., a posh suburb of Washington. Friends, including Washington Superior Court Judge Robert M. Scott, say McKay is an avid reader of mysteries, Dickens and historical biographies. Those same friends say McKay plays tennis well, golfs poorly and loves to travel, particularly in Scotland.

When McKay took his oath to be a federal special prosecutor in February 1987, he said his goal was to "finish within three to four months."

Events quickly interfered. Less than four months after McKay began his original task of examining the lobbying ties of Nofziger (which ended in Nofziger's conviction earlier this year), he began what would be the longest leg of his odyssey — investigating Meese.

Keeps politics to self

McKay's colleagues say he is usually in the office by 7 a.m. and has often worked weekends, trying to wrap the Meese case up as quickly, and thoroughly, as possible. At times, such as during the a Memorial Day weekend outing at the Delaware shore, friends say McKay was preoccupied to the extent that he wasn't his usual, humor-filled self.

"Certainly, no one expected it would take this long," said Charles A. Miller, a managing partner at the Covington firm, where McKay will return.

And, in a town passionate for politics, McKay is a non-conformist. Even McKay's best friends say they don't know whether this man with the central investigative role in one of the most sensitive episodes of the Reagan presidency is a Republican or a Democrat. (Maryland records show McKay is a registered Democrat but has not voted since 1984.)

"He's the most apolitical person you would care to meet," Bender said. "I mean, how many people in Washington do you know who don't care about politics?"

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