January 20, 1999

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Starr’s ‘High Crime’

By Robert Parry

Like a flanking maneuver from some Civil War battle, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has taken his campaign to oust President Clinton across the Potomac River into the Old Confederacy.

On Jan. 7, Starr turned his back on his grand jury in Washington, D.C. -- which had heard most of the Monica Lewinsky case -- and embraced a second grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia, a whiter and more conservative area, a place where the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is called "Lee-Jackson-King Day."

In this land of Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson, Starr secured a four-count felony indictment against a peripheral figure in the impeachment war, a single mother named Julie Hiatt Steele.

Steele's alleged crime was contradicting a high-profile anti-Clinton witness, Kathleen Willey, who claimed in 1997 that Clinton groped her during an Oval Office meeting that had occurred nearly four years earlier.

The indictment came as the Senate was beginning Clinton's impeachment trial. So, most press commentary about the Steele case suggested that Starr's maneuver might mean that Willey's bolstered credibility would let the Republicans call her as a Senate witness against Clinton.

But the indictment also could represent a significant new front in the GOP war against the Democratic president. In indicting Steele for perjury and obstruction of justice, Starr asserted that part of her crime was signing an affidavit drafted by Clinton's lawyers in the Paula Jones case.

In other words, Starr has established a possible basis for mounting a conspiracy-to-obstruct-justice case against the president in the more anti-Clinton terrain of Virginia, a state that voted against him both in 1992 and 1996.

With the indictment of Steele, the Virginia grand jury sitting in Alexandria also showed that it will serve the traditional rubber-stamp role of many grand juries, in line with the old adage that a prosecutor can "indict a ham sandwich."

Starr secured no indictments from the Lewinsky grand jury in Washington. Those grand jurors even displayed some independence, such as eliciting from Lewinsky her statement that no one had asked her to lie in exchange for a job, a question that Starr's prosecutors had not posed during days of testimony.

But the Steele indictment struck some observers as excessively vindictive. To describe Starr’s action, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis dusted off Hamlet's description of his murderous uncle: "remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless." [NYT, Jan. 12, 1999]

At the center of this new case was Julie Steele, an unsophisticated 52-year-old single mother who was struggling to make ends meet for herself and her eight-year-old son, Adam, whom she adopted from Romania.

She adopted the boy after she lost her own son, Ben, who died from a heart defect four days after his birth.

"Ben died actually in my arms," Steele said in a later television interview. "So for a long time with this story I thought the worst has already happened. ... It doesn't get worse than this, the death of a child." [CNN's "Larry King Live, Aug. 7, 1998]

Steele was pulled into the whirlpool of the Clinton investigation in March 1997, when she received a call from Kathleen Willey, a longtime friend in Richmond, Va. Willey wanted Steele to confirm to Newsweek's Michael Isikoff that on Nov. 29, 1993, a distraught Willey had told Steele about the alleged groping incident, just hours after it happened.

Initially, Steele did back up Willey’s story, but Steele soon recanted and advised Isikoff that Willey had importuned her to lie. Newsweek ran the story anyway in August 1997, noting Steele's initial confirmation and recantation. The Newsweek story caused a minor flap at the time, but Willey's claim was seen mostly as a footnote to the Paula Jones lawsuit.

In the months that followed, however, the Paula Jones case advanced. Conservative lawyers for Jones cornered the president in January 1998 with questions about Willey and a then-unknown former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Clinton played word games on the Lewinsky questions but "emphatically" denied accosting Willey.

By this point, Starr had started a criminal investigation against Clinton in connection with testimony given in the Jones civil case. Several days after Clinton’s deposition, Starr's pursuit of the Lewinsky matter burst into public view, touching off a firestorm of media coverage.

Amid that media excitement, the Willey story briefly took center stage. In March 1998, Willey was given a friendly forum on CBS' "60 Minutes" to state her case.

In measured tones, Willey explained that her family's financial troubles had caused her to appeal to the president for a good-paying job in November 1993. She said she was horrified when Clinton made an unwelcome sexual advance during the Oval Office meeting.

Given Willey's sober demeanor, Clinton's detractors acclaimed Willey as credible -- and many pundits judged the moment an important turning point in the sexual misconduct complaints against the president.

Starr also saw the Willey story as a way to corroborate his suspicions of an unrelenting Clinton cover-up strategy in which the president somehow induces people to lie for him. Starr asserted jurisdiction over the Willey matter because of its links to alleged obstruction in the Jones case.

But in the days after the "60 Minutes" broadcast, Willey's credibility crumbled. First, the White House released 15 friendly notes that Willey had sent the president, including many after the alleged groping incident. In one, Willey declared herself Clinton's "No. 1 fan."

Others who knew Willey described her as obsessed with Clinton and eager to strike up a romantic relationship. Among those undercutting Willey's story of Clinton's unwelcome advances was Linda Tripp -- the ubiquitous former White House employee and ex-friend of Monica Lewinsky.

Tripp said she spoke with Willey at the White House shortly after the Clinton encounter. Tripp recalled that a disheveled Willey seemed delighted by a presidential embrace. Tripp later testified that Willey had been scheming to attract Clinton's attention in the weeks both before and after the meeting.

Another Willey friend, Harolyn Cardozo, said Willey called that evening while driving home from Washington to Richmond. Cardozo said Willey sounded "excited and pleased" about the meeting with Clinton. [NYT, March 20, 1998] Willey's cellular phone records confirmed that she spoke with Cardozo for 47 minutes and four seconds that evening.

When Starr brought Cardozo before the Lewinsky grand jury on April 4, 1998, Cardozo reportedly contradicted Willey's tale of fear and fury. Instead, Cardozo said Willey was musing about the possibility of becoming Clinton's Judith Campbell Exner, one of President Kennedy's notorious White House mistresses. [Boston Globe, Jan. 10, 1999]

There were other reasons to doubt Willey's delayed complaint about the alleged Oval Office grope. For one, she had a strong motive to lie.

In 1997, burdened with debts left by her late husband -- who committed suicide the same day that Willey was approaching Clinton for a paying job -- Willey was angling to sell her story to a tabloid or possibly write a tell-all book. Her agent was seeking about $300,000, roughly the amount that Willey owed creditors. [NYT, March 20, 1998]

Given the evidence, a normal prosecutor might have considered a perjury case against Willey. Multiple witnesses had contradicted her account of an event -- ironically including both President Clinton and Linda Tripp. Willey's prior behavior and her own letters belied her claim of innocent intent. Plus, she had a financial motive to lie.

Yet, instead of going after Willey, Starr chose to make a case against Julie Steele, who was the most public witness against Willey and also the most financially vulnerable.

Starr first called Steele before the Lewinsky grand jury in Washington. There, on June 11, 1998, Steele repeated her account of Willey asking her to lie.

In an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Aug. 7, 1998, Steele said the Washington grand jury paid close attention to her testimony and seemed sympathetic. That grand jury was knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of the Clinton case, having listened to a parade of witnesses brought forward by Starr and his prosecutors.

"I felt fine," Steele said. "I felt fine about it."

Though Starr considered Steele's testimony in Washington to be perjury, he apparently decided that he could make a stronger case in Virginia. He called Steele to testify again before another grand jury in Alexandria.

Steele's attorney, John Coale, immediately smelled a rat, as he explained on the Larry King show. "We think it's a set-up," Coale said. "She did a good job in front of D.C., so they want to take her in front of Virginia because apparently they [the Washington grand jurors] liked her, so they [Starr's prosecutors] want her to go to Virginia."

Coale's suspicions proved prescient. Starr compelled Steele to repeat her story before the Virginia grand jury and then sought out witnesses to contradict Steele's account. Starr wholeheartedly took Willey's side.

In the indictment, Starr declared that Willey had told the truth when she testified that she informed Steele immediately after the Clinton incident in 1993. Starr cited as proof the supposed fact that Steele had "related information about Ms. Willey's account of the incident to several of Defendant Steele's friends."

Starr, however, withheld the names of these witnesses. He also kept secret their testimony and its precise conflicts with Steele's statements. In the indictment, Starr mentioned only two unidentified witnesses whom he called "John Doe" and "Jane Doe."

The "John Doe" turned out to be Richmond television producer Bill Poveromo, who acknowledged publicly appearing before Starr's grand jury. According to Poveromo's account of his testimony, his primary contradiction of Steele was his claim that Steele told him at a dinner party in spring 1997 that Willey was asserting that Clinton had groped her. [WP, Jan. 15, 1999]

But the key question about Poveromo's testimony was the timing of the conversation with Steele. If it was after the Isikoff incident, then Steele clearly was aware of Willey's claims and there would be no contradiction, no proof of perjury.

In the Larry King interview, Steele said she first learned of Willey's accusations against Clinton in early 1997, in her words, "late winter of 1997" -- when Willey called to ask Steele to meet with Isikoff. Newsweek placed the Isikoff-Steele meeting in March 1997.

In other words, by spring 1997 -- when Poveromo claimed he talked with Steele -- she would have been aware of Willey's account. Therefore, Poveromo's testimony that Steele mentioned the groping allegation to him in spring 1997 would not prove that Steele knew about Willey's claim in November 1993.

Indeed, the only significant contradiction left between Poveromo and Steele was Steele's statement that she did not recall talking with Poveromo about the Willey matter at the dinner party. Such a minor discrepancy would never rise to the level of an indictment in a normal investigation.

Nevertheless, the felony indictment of an American citizen with few resources and a child to support is a devastating act. Even if Steele can prove her innocence, she will be faced with a mountain of legal bills.

In arguing for removing Clinton from office, Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., one of the House impeachment prosecutors, offered a novel definition of how the Senate should define the constitutional standard of a "high crime."

On Jan. 16, on the Senate floor, Graham asked rhetorically "What is a high crime?" He then answered, "How about if an important person hurts somebody of low means? It's not very scholarly, but I think it's the truth. I think that's what they [the Founders] meant by high crimes. Doesn't even have to be a crime.

It's just when you start using your office and you're acting in a way that hurts people, you've committed a high crime." [NYT, Jan. 18, 1999]

By Graham's standards, perhaps it would be more fitting to put Kenneth Starr in the impeachment dock.

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