Forty years after the Watergate break-in, a Fripp Island man is still wondering what might have been.
Paul J. Field was a bank examiner with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. in 1972.
He is convinced that by sheer coincidence, his professional duties pulled him unknowingly into the web that brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and tested the foundations of our Constitution.
"I believe that if the FDIC survives a thousand years," said the 82-year-old retiree, "that it is very unlikely that one of its examiners will have the opportunity of exposing a criminal conspiracy that would lead to the resignation of a president of the United States in disgrace."
Field himself was denied that opportunity, which fuels his belief that he came close to a conspiracy that involved the highest levels of government. And it causes him to reflect: "Things could have been different, you never know."
On a cold Friday morning in March 1972, Field was hurriedly called from an inspection in Virginia to examine a bank in eastern South Carolina. Check kiting was suspected. His examination showed the kiting involved some $475,000, the bank president, and a bank in Mexico.
Field said the U.S. Attorney in Columbia wanted physical account statements, checks and deposit slips from the Mexico bank to press the case.
"Assuming authorization could be secured, he asked if I would be willing to go to Mexico to conduct a very limited investigation and obtain certain copies of the bank's records," Field said. "I accepted the assignment and two weeks later I was scheduled to fly to Mexico City on a Sunday afternoon.
"On the Thursday before my departure I was notified by our regional office that my trip had been canceled by a senior official with the Department of Justice in Washington with no explanation being given."
He thought it was odd, and the U.S. Attorney had no explanation either.
Field said he got busy on other cases, and didn't think any more about it.
About a year later, an FBI agent he knew who had just finished a 90-day assignment in Washington told Field that John Mitchell, who had recently left his post as U.S. Attorney General to head Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President, had somehow gotten his trip to Mexico canceled.
Field still cannot prove that hearsay. But as he has watched history unfold, the significance of a Mexico City bank to the Watergate burglary became clear. The FBI said checks totaling more than $100,000 were deposited in a Mexico bank account of one of the five men arrested in the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex on June 17, 1972.
Testimony in congressional hearings probing the scandal showed presidential campaign contributions going through the Mexico bank to a south Florida bank and ultimately to fund covert operations that led to Nixon's resignation in 1974. At one point, Nixon's men tried unsuccessfully to convince the FBI that investigating the Mexico bank would impair a CIA operation.
Field says today that even if he went to the same bank where Nixon's slush fund was being laundered to disguise its origin, chances are remote he would have discovered it.
But as he has gone through retirement -- staying busy as a commercial fisherman and head of the Fripp Island Sea Rescue unit -- he has often thought about the gold mine of leads that could have been discovered. He has meticulously written down the probabilities of each discovery, and how it could have happened. He's thought about what he would have done with the information. He's even wondered if he would have been safe.
"No one will ever know what the findings of my canceled assignment might have revealed," Field said. "The results could have ranged from a very personal consideration to a disclosure that could have become an important episode in American history."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.