April 19, 1999
The Persecution of Ken Starr
Though Starr may see himself as the ultimate victim, complaints about his heavy-handed legal tactics and ideological bias have been a refrain throughout his near-five-year-old investigation of Clinton.
In her trial, McDougal, one of the Clintons' business partner in the failed Whitewater development project, testified about the pressures she faced. She claimed that Starr's prosecutors were willing to clear up her legal troubles if she falsely incriminated Clinton.
Taking the stand on March 22, McDougal said Starr's deputies told her that "all my legal troubles would disappear" -- including a then-pending fraud case -- "if I would just give them something on Clinton. They asked me to lie."
McDougal said she refused to testify before Starr's grand jury because she feared that Starr would indict her for perjury if she told the truth -- if she said she knew of no wrongdoing by the Clintons.
McDougal's refusal prompted her imprisonment for civil contempt of court for 18 months and Starr's follow-up prosecution of her for obstruction and criminal contempt.
During the trial, two of Starr's prosecutors took the stand and denied McDougal's claims of coercion. They insisted that they only wanted the truth. But legal sources confirmed that if Susan McDougal had backed Clinton before the grand jury, Starr well might have used her estranged husband Jim McDougal (now deceased) and his associate, David Hale, to indict her for perjury.
Given the similarities in the cases, however, Julie Hiatt Steele volunteered to testify in McDougal's defense. On April 2, Steele asserted that she faced a similar dilemma, with Starr's prosecutors determined to get negative information about President Clinton and willing to punish anyone who wouldn't cooperate.
Unlike McDougal, Steele did appear before two grand juries, one in Washington and one in Alexandria, Va.
Starr was hoping that Steele would corroborate the testimony of Kathleen Willey, who claimed that Clinton groped her during an Oval Office meeting in November 1993. Willey asserted that she told Steele about the incident immediately afterwards.
Clinton had denied the charge under oath, so Steele was the key for Starr to bring another sex-and-lies case against the president.
Instead, Steele called Willey a liar who had fabricated corroborating evidence for her claim against Clinton. Steele testified that Willey first mentioned the unwelcome advance in late winter 1997 when she called Steele and asked her to lie to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff.
Steele was to pretend that Willey had mentioned the story more than three years earlier, when she hadnt. Steele said she first went along with the scam out of friendship to Willey. Steele told Isikoff that Willey had mentioned the Clinton incident shortly after it occurred.
But Steele later recanted and told Isikoff that Willey had importuned her to lie. In August 1997, Newsweek still published the article about the alleged Oval Office grope.
Steele repeated her account to the two grand juries in 1998. At the McDougal trial, Steele also disclosed that after the grand-jury testimony, Starr's prosecutors invited her "to a secret meeting to clarify my testimony. I believed I was to support Kathleen Willey's version of the story. I couldn't do it. I left the meeting in tears. I didn't know anything to tell."
Steele then experienced exactly what McDougal said she feared, a perjury charge for giving testimony that Starr did not want to hear. At Starr's request, the Alexandria grand jury indicted Steele for perjury and obstruction on Jan. 7, 1999, during Clinton's Senate impeachment trial.
By indicting Steele, Starr bolstered Willey's credibility and briefly raised the possibility that the House managers would call Willey as a Senate witness. But the prospect of Willey's Senate testimony died when the Senate limited the impeachment trial to three witnesses and acquitted the president.
By prosecuting Steele now, Starr might be holding out hope that he can still justify his dark suspicions about the president. Starr's strategy could be to rattle Steele and shake loose some new evidence of obstruction that could justify an indictment of Clinton.
Starr's defenders insist, however, that he is prosecuting Steele simply because he is a stickler for "the rule of law" and believes Steele must be punished for committing what Starr believes was perjury.
Yet, in the wake of Starr's McDougal defeat, the stakes surrounding the Steele trial -- scheduled for early May -- have risen. If Steele is acquitted, the trial could cement Starr's image as a political hatchet man only masquerading as an "independent counsel."
Rather than the abused figure he claimed to be at the Senate hearing, Starr would look very much like a man who enjoys abusing women who find themselves under his power.
Like a TV spin-off of the Monica Lewinsky melodrama, the Steele trial also could bring back many of the old Lewinsky characters.
Besides Willey, who had a supporting Lewinsky role thanks to a sympathetic CBS "60 Minutes" interview, the Steele trial could feature video testimony from President Clinton, at least the part where he denies Willey's story.
Assuming the news media has grown bored with Kosovo and other weighty issues by then, the network legal analysts and the ubiquitous pundits can be expected to be holding forth again, too.
But the star witness could be Linda Tripp, the self-pitying villain who secretly taped and publicly betrayed her young friend, Lewinsky. As it turns out, Tripp was counseling Willey about her infatuation with Clinton long before Tripp provided a similar service for Lewinsky.
Tripp has given an account of the 1993 Willey-Clinton meeting that conflicts significantly with Willey's story, although it still puts Clinton in a bad light.
In a deposition and in testimony before a grand jury, Tripp said Willey was, by no means, an unwilling participant in whatever physical contact did occur. According to Tripp, Willey invited Clinton's attention and was thrilled by the embrace.
As Tripp tells it, the Willey-Clinton story dates back to the 1992 presidential campaign. Willey and her husband Edward, a Virginia real-estate lawyer and the son of an influential Democratic politician, were early backers of Clinton's presidential campaign and financial contributors.
Willey once told Tripp that she had approached Clinton at a rope line during debate rehearsals in Williamsburg, Va. Noticing Clinton's hoarse voice, Willey advised him "he could use some chicken soup." Clinton supposedly suggested that she should bring him some, but she didn't.
After Clinton took office, Willey drove from the family home in Richmond, Va., two days a week to volunteer at the White House. Tripp, a holdover from George Bush's White House, said she met Willey in January 1993 when Willey was a volunteer in the White House Comments Office.
Struck by Willey's polish and good looks, Tripp suggested that Willey transfer to the Social Office in the East Wing, a move that Willey did make. In the months that followed, however, Willey frequently visited Tripp's office in the West Wing, near the Oval Office.
In her testimony, Tripp depicted Willey as a woman in a failing marriage who was infatuated with Clinton; she was asking her husband for a divorce while plotting how to attract Clinton's attention.
Tripp said Willey would call her at home, "always about the flirtation." Willey wanted to get Clinton's "closely held" schedule so she could position herself at strategic places "to be seen by the president," Tripp said in her deposition.
Much like Monica Lewinsky did later, "Willey would arrange to cover evening social functions" that the president attended, Tripp testified. Willey "would wear a particular black dress which accentuated her cleavage" and she'd wear high heels "to enhance her legs."
Willey sent personal notes to Clinton through Clinton aide Nancy Hernreich, some of which Tripp saw. Tripp helped edit those she thought were "a tad too flirtatious" so Hernreich wouldn't "become suspicious." At other times, "Willey would meet with Hernreich to be closer to the president."
By early spring 1993, Willey announced that "she was flirting with the president and that he appeared interested" in her. Tripp and Willey brainstormed about where Willey and Clinton could go to have a tryst.
Tripp suggested several times to her that the Annapolis home of a Willey friend would do. The two women discussed how the Secret Service might be handled.
By late summer 1993, Willey added another element to the conversations, a growing desperation about money and the need for a paid position at the White House. Willey was facing a string of legal problems arising from her family finances and a promissory note that she had co-signed to cover her husband's $274,000 in business debts.
On Nov. 28, 1993, Tripp recalled that Willey phoned to say that her husband had confessed to her and their children that he had embezzled money. After an argument, he had left the house.
Coincidentally, after many notes sent to Clinton requesting a meeting, Willey had sent one expressing "urgency" and had finally succeeded in getting an interview with the president slated for the next day, Nov. 29, to talk about a job. Tripp testified she saw Willey "a lot" the day of the Clinton meeting. "A lot," Tripp reiterated.
After the meeting, the two women met as planned. Tripp described Willey as being "very excited, happy, but flustered and completely overwhelmed by the event." Tripp said Willey's face was "flushed," and she "smiled from ear to ear."
Tripp said Willey recounted telling Clinton "something to the effect that she was throwing herself" on his mercy, when he suddenly kissed her forcefully. "His tongue was down my throat," Willey said, adding that she "kissed him back," according to Tripp. Willey added that "his hands were all over her backside" and "he put her hand on his penis."
That night, Willey and Tripp "discussed whether Willey would be a girlfriend of the president," said Tripp. Willey apparently had a similar conversation with another female friend, Harolyn Cardozo, who received a call from Willey who was using a cellular phone as she drove home that night from Washington to Richmond.
Cardozo said Willey was "excited and pleased" about the Clinton meeting. [NYT, March 20, 1998] In testimony before the Washington grand jury, Cardozo reportedly added that Willey mused about becoming Clinton's mistress, much as Judith Campbell Exner, a Mafia party girl, had become one of John F. Kennedy's mistresses. [Boston Globe, Jan. 10, 1999]