NEW YORK — Arnold I. Burns, a top Justice Department official under President Reagan who resigned in protest of what he and others viewed as improper acts by Attorney General Edwin Meese III, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was cardiac arrest and complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his son, Douglas.
Mr. Burns, a New York lawyer who had no experience as a prosecutor, enjoyed a rapid rise in government in the 1980s. He was named associate attorney general in late 1985 after Meese’s first choice was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee and was promoted to the second-ranking spot, deputy attorney general, in July 1986.
Yet as Mr. Burns rose, Meese, whom he had known through charity and corporate relationships, was coming under scrutiny over his handling of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal, a proposal for a $1 billion Iraqi oil pipeline supported by a friend, and benefits that he and his family received from people seeking government contracts.
By early 1987, a special prosecutor had been appointed to investigate Meese, and morale at the Justice Department had plummeted, Mr. Burns later told Congress. The department’s work, he said, had become “impeded by a deep malaise that was setting in by virtue of Mr. Meese’s problems and the public outcry for his resignation.”
In March 1988, Mr. Burns and William F. Weld, the head of the department’s criminal division, resigned, along with four aides. More department officials stepped down in the next months.
But the special prosecutor, while saying that Meese had probably broken the law in managing his personal finances, declined to filed charges against him. A week later, in July, Mr. Burns and Weld testified together before Congress. Weld, who later became governor of Massachusetts, said he believed that Meese could have been subject to prosecution.
But Mr. Burns may have left the more lasting image. Pounding the witness table, he said the department under Meese had become “a world of Alice in Wonderland — a world of illusion and allusion: a world in which up was down and down was up, in was out and out was in, happy was sad and sad was happy.”
By the end of July, Meese had announced his resignation.
It was revealed later that Mr. Burns had been equally colorful — or off-color — in a meeting that April at the White House with Reagan, Vice President George Bush, and others. According to several accounts, Mr. Burns made his loyalty to the president clear using explicit language, but insisted that he and Weld could not remain at Justice if Meese was in charge.
“The president seemed, to my eye and to my mind, distressed by what occurred,” Mr. Burns told the committee. “The vice president, to my mind, to my eye, was florid and very upset.”
But after the administration signaled it would not force Meese to quit, Mr. Burns and Weld announced that they would.
Arnold Irwin Burns was born in Brooklyn. His father, Herman, owned a jewelry store, and his mother, Rose, was a homemaker. He graduated from Union College and from Cornell University School of Law. He initially joined a private law firm, but soon helped form his own, Burns Summit Rovins & Feldesman, where he spent 25 years, focusing mostly on corporate and securities law, before he joined the Justice Department.
After his time in government, he joined Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn, staying there for about 10 years before moving to an investment firm. In his later years, he wrote a self-published memoir, “Preparing to Be Lucky,” and books of jokes.
In addition to his son, Mr. Burns leaves his wife of 62 years, the former Felice Bernstein; his daughter, Linda; two sisters, Ruth Cowan and Norma Salem; and four grandchildren.