How DC Taxi Driver Elmer Wyatt Became Watergate’s ‘Best Spy’

Elmer Wyatt in an undated photograph.  (Courtesy of Verona Scott)
Elmer Wyatt in an undated photograph. (Courtesy of Verona Scott)

How a Charming Taxi Driver Named Elmer Wyatt Became a Nixon Mole Against Democrats

Even his family always wondered about Elmer Wyatt. In the 1970s, this mischievous grinning charmer had been driving a cab in Washington for more than three decades. But how come he seemed to know everyone at the racetracks and gambling halls? How come so many politicians are not just his regular customers, but his friends?

“He’s always had a secret side to things,” Wyatt’s daughter Verona Scott told me with a laugh in a recent interview. “He always had something to do, you know, a scheme. He just had his hands in a lot of pots.

Half a century later, mysteries still linger about Wyatt. According to family lore, he used to run numbers in the old DC Who Knows? Still, part of the taxi driver’s underground life can be pieced together by digging through transcripts of congressional hearings and peeking into a memento box, hidden away for decades and shared publicly for the first time with the Washington Post.

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Turns out Elmer Wyatt was a spy in the scandal of the century: Watergate. And he was the best of spies, according to his master in the recesses of Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign.

Wyatt’s involvement in Watergate dates back to 1971 when he suffered a stroke that left him unable to work as a taxi driver for six weeks, according to a written statement he provided to congressional investigators during an interview. an interview behind closed doors. That fall, he was returning to work and called his old friend John Buckley asking for help finding a part-time gig, according to the confidential statement, which was recently provided to The Post by Wyatt’s family.

Wyatt and Buckley had met years earlier when Buckley was an FBI agent. Wyatt was at a gambling establishment where Buckley busted out, according to Buckley’s testimony before the Senate Watergate committee. Authorities interviewed Wyatt as a witness, then released him.

When Wyatt called, Buckley had retired from the FBI and was working in the Inspection Division of the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity. He was hired by his then manager, Donald Rumsfeld, who decades later served as Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Buckley did indeed have a job for Wyatt. He realized that drivers have privileged access and proximity to candidates and campaigns. He seized on the idea of ​​running Wyatt as a campaign volunteer for Edmund Muskie, the Democratic U.S. senator from Maine whom Nixon feared most as an opponent in the upcoming presidential campaign. Once installed, Wyatt could spy on the Muskie campaign. Buckley, according to his testimony, got approval for the operation from Kenneth Rietz, an official on the President’s Reelection Committee, known by his nickname CREEP. Buckley used the codename “Jack Kent” while engaged in political espionage, but the CREEP crew called their portly agent “Fat Jack”. Wyatt accepted the assignment immediately, thinking he would make easy money.

One day, Wyatt walked into the Muskie campaign headquarters in Washington and told the staff that he loved Senator Muskie and wanted to help. They eventually started using him as a courier.

Back home in Maryland, Wyatt’s interest in the countryside intrigued his family. “I never understood why my dad was volunteering for Muskie, because we were Republicans,” said Scott, his daughter.

Fat Jack’s plan was simple but flawed: the taxi driver was calling him after collecting paperwork to transport him from Muskie’s campaign headquarters to the senator’s office on Capitol Hill. They were meeting on a street corner in downtown Washington. Fat Jack sat in the back seat photographing documents while Wyatt drove, then got out, and the taxi driver continued on his way to Muskie’s office. With sunlight streaming in through the windows, Fat Jack struggled to get good photos. After a week of frustration, he rented an office instead. He bought an enlargement machine, a camera stand and a better camera. He would take the film home and develop it. Then he would meet Rietz at one of the two corners near the White House to deliver the materials.

But they couldn’t even do that right. Rietz always arrived late for photo submissions. Fat Jack got angry. Rietz was replaced by someone who went by the name “Ed Warren”. He was more punctual. Although they were conspiring to help Nixon, Fat Jack’s new contact was not entirely transparent with him. After the Watergate scandal broke, Buckley learned that Ed Warren was actually E. Howard Hunt, the former CIA agent who was arrested for orchestrating the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972. .

When Buckley was dragged before Congress to testify in October 1973, he was vague about what Wyatt had collected for him. He claimed he did not recall many details, but said the material included not-yet-public drafts of forthcoming speeches, position papers and press releases. He recalled seeing a draft of a letter from Muskie regarding the nomination of William Rehnquist to the United States Supreme Court and said it was possible that a newspaper column referring to a campaign memo confidential came from Wyatt’s cache.

Elmer Wyatt claimed he didn’t really know what was going on until about two months after the operation began. By then, he had gotten used to the easy money: starting at $150 a week, which was later reduced to $175, for just a few hours of light work. In his statement to congressional investigators, he described his eight months as a mole as if it were some sort of welfare regime that allowed him to earn a living while he returned to the world of work.

“I was able to take things easy [sic] and regain my health,” read the statement to committee investigators. “Thanks to Watergate, I can now do a day [sic] work, 7 days a week.

Wyatt and Fat Jack ended their surveillance in April 1972 when Muskie’s campaign failed and the senator dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination. The following month, Wyatt received a signed thank you note from Muskie that looks like a form letter. At the time, Muskie was unlikely to know he was showing his appreciation to a man who had spied on him — the DNC break and enter arrests wouldn’t happen for another month. Still, with all we know now, the letter almost reads like a premonition.

“Political work, perhaps more than most fields of endeavor, demonstrates the qualities that each of us possesses,” read the previously undisclosed letter. “The long hours and frantic pace, coupled with often great pressures, tend to bring out the best or the worst in everyone involved.”

The following year, as Congress considered Buckley’s draft operation, staff members called Wyatt to answer a few questions. He denied any involvement, according to a transcript of the Senate Watergate hearings. When they called him back a second time, he confessed.

“I don’t think I did any more harm than you or anyone else who walked into Muskie’s office at the time,” Wyatt wrote in his statement to congressional investigators. Buckley insisted, under skeptical questions from senators, that he and Wyatt were not engaged in illegal activities. But he admitted they “spied” and were involved in “political espionage”. He described their Muskie project as routine opposition research.

Buckley and Wyatt were never charged with crimes. Wyatt, refreshed from his easy job spying on Watergate, went back to driving a taxi – and fell back into obscurity. He hosted poker games at his house, sometimes waking up his daughter, Verona, to play a hand for him. She was his lucky charm. He would play the lottery using his taxi number: 108.

He died at No. 108 one day in 1981. He just stopped on the side of the road and breathed his last. At his memorial service, his family performed Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.”

“For a taxi driver, he led a very interesting life,” Scott says.

In 2005, Wyatt’s son passed away, and eventually Verona Scott was left with that complicated and entertaining father-guarded box of memories she remembers so fondly. Inside was a photo of John R. Buckley, signed “Fat Jack”. The inscription reads: “To Elmer Wyatt, friend, sometimes taxi driver – other times spy – The most efficient, legal and legitimate spy in all the Watergate mess!”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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