SEATTLE – William Doyle Ruckelshaus, a Hoosier who famously quit his job in the U.S. Justice Department rather than carry out President Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, has died. He was 87.
Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which confirmed his death in a statement Wednesday.
The lifelong Republican also served as acting director of the FBI. But his moment of fame came Oct. 20, 1973, when he was a deputy attorney general and joined his boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, in resigning rather than carry out Nixon's unlawful order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
After Richardson and Ruckelshaus resigned, Solicitor General Robert Bork carried out the firing in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre” – prompting protests and outrage around the country. Impeachment proceedings against Nixon began 10 days later.
Ruckelshaus' civic service and business career spanned decades and U.S. coasts, marked by two stints at the EPA under Nixon and Ronald Reagan, a failed U.S. Senate bid in 1968 and top positions at Weyerhaeuser Co. and Browning-Ferris Industries.
He was born in 1932 in Indianapolis to a line of politically active lawyers. His grandfather had been the Indiana chairman of the Republican Party in 1900, and his father was the platform committee chairman at five Republican Conventions.
Ruckelshaus spent much of his life focused on air and water pollution and other environmental issues. As a young Indiana state attorney general, he sought court orders to prevent industries and cities from polluting waters, and in his later years, he was the Pacific Northwest's most high-profile advocate for cleaning up Puget Sound in Washington state.
As the first EPA administrator from 1970 to 1973, he won praise for pushing automakers to tighten controls on air pollution. Shortly after taking over the agency, he ordered the mayors of Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland to stop polluting waters and took actions against U.S. Steel and dozens of other polluters.
Reagan asked him back to the EPA in 1983 to help restore public trust after the prior administrator – Anne Gorsuch, mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over documents about her agency's allegedly lax efforts to clean up toxic waste.
Several thousand EPA employees greeted his return with thunderous applause. One sign read, “How do you spell relief? Ruckelshaus.”
In an interview with The Associated Press last year, he criticized President Donald Trump's moves to roll back environmental protections and give more regulatory power to the states, saying some don't have the resources to police big polluters, and others lack the will.