As a private lawyer, Lawrence Walsh exasperated his partners by continuing to work on a case long after he could justify billing the client. When he was appointed independent counsel to investigate the Iran-contra scandal back in 1986, one of his law partners predicted that Walsh would "sink his teeth" into the case and "never let go." Last week, after spending nearly five years and $27 million, Walsh finally opened his jaws, at least for a moment. He agreed to drop all charges against his main quarry, Oliver North. The Wall Street Journal, which had compared Walsh to Ahab in pursuit of the "Great White Ollie," cheered. So did Walsh's hometown newspaper. "Come home Larry," editorialized the Daily Oklahoman. But Walsh ignored them. Now he wants to widen his investigation of the role of the CIA in the scandal.
Will Iran-contra ever end? Walsh's supporters say the former federal judge and prosecutor is just doing his civic duty to ferret out deceit in the executive branch. They blame the Reagan administration for refusing access to classified documents central to the prosecution, They also blame Congress for holding the 1987 televised hearings that finally led to the collapse of the North case. Lawmakers wanted a public airing of the scandal, but they created problems for Walsh, who was unable to show that key witnesses were untainted by North's testimony. Most of Walsh's staffers defend him as an old-fashioned moralist. But some wonder at his painstaking caution and somewhat leisurely approach to the case. Walsh admits some misgivings. "At times I've questioned my investment of time," he says. "But you can't just quit because you're picking up criticism." Walsh, whose persistence has helped him to win convictions of eight Iran-contra figures so far, turns 80 in January. Don't expect him to retire any time soon.