April 19, 1999
The Persecution of Ken Starr
Unknown to Willey that evening, her husband had committed suicide. His body was found the following day, Nov. 30, 1993.
After learning of her husband's death, Willey continued to have phone conversations with Tripp about Clinton. Rather than acting as a grieving widow, Willey continued to fantasize about her crush on the president. "Willey continued to verbalize the desire to" have a relationship with Clinton, "almost obsessively," testified Tripp.
Willey peppered the Oval Office with friendly notes and did land some White House employment in 1994, including a stint at the White House counsel's office where Tripp was located. But Willey never had another meeting with Clinton. Willey's financial troubles also deepened as she faced her late husband's debts and lawsuits from creditors.
To dodge angry creditors, Willey's lawyer shifted $750,000 from a life-insurance settlement to her children who then sent Willey up to $4,500 a month. The maneuver led to civil action and raised the prospect of more serious legal proceedings.
According to Tripp, her friendship with Willey ended in August 1994 when Tripp transferred to the Pentagon. Three years later, in March 1997, Isikoff tracked Tripp down there and asked about Willey's encounter with Clinton. Tripp told Isikoff "that whatever happened was not sexual harassment."
When Tripp called Willey to protest Isikoff's visit, Tripp said Willey claimed that Tripp "had a faulty memory and that the incident with the president was clearly sexual harassment." Willey seemed to be contemplating some sort of civil suit, following on the heels of Paula Jones's suit filed against Clinton for allegedly making a crude advance to her in 1991.
After talking to Willey, Tripp phoned Clinton's lawyer Bruce Lindsey and alerted him to the Newsweek approach. Tripp repeated her recollection that Willey had "aggressively" pushed for an affair with the president, but was now "used, abused and penniless." According to Tripp's testimony, Lindsey and Isikoff both believed Willey was mentally unstable.
In the "60 Minutes" interview in March 1998 -- during the early frenzy around the Monica Lewinsky scandal -- Willey grimly went public with her charges against Clinton. But in the weeks that followed, Willey's credibility cracked. The White House released 15 friendly letters that Willey had sent to Clinton both before and after the meeting.
Book publisher Michael Viner of New Millennium Press disclosed that Willey had been angling for a $300,000 book contract. Initially, Viner said the book was to present her as "a fan, a friend who cared about President Clinton," Viner recalled. "The Kathleen Willey presented on '60 Minutes' was a different person with a different story than the portrait that had been painted for me in the last couple of months." [AP, March 18, 1998]
Other Willey associates also recalled her praising the president months after the supposedly unwelcome grope. "She expressed nothing less than admiration for the president, bordering on adulation or adoration," said Tom Siebert, a friend of both Clinton and Willey. [U.S. News, March 30, 1998]
In videotaped grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, 1998, Clinton flatly denied Willey's charge. He insisted emphatically that nothing sexual happened between them, that he only comforted Willey who appeared to be distraught. He said he might have given her a hug and a kiss on the forehead.
But Starr chose to accept Willey's account as truthful and saw Clinton's testimony as another area of possible perjury. Starr had a problem, however: Julie Hiatt Steele. As long as Steele insisted that Willey was a liar who fabricated corroborating evidence, the case could not be made against the president.
With the Republicans gearing up for Clinton's impeachment, Steele's lawyer Nancy Luque said, "Starr was squeezing Julie mercilessly, threatening to indict her if she wouldn't change her story to conform with Willey's. And Julie would not. That's why Republicans were unable to make those charges at that time."
Because Starr obtained a gag order barring public disclosure of pre-trial details in the Steele case, only bits and pieces have spilled out. One document that did surface in pre-trial proceedings, however, was the unusual grant of immunity that Starr gave Willey to secure her testimony against Clinton in 1998.
Starr gave Willey an immunity deal that declared Willey innocent of all wrongdoing. "I've never seen anything like it," one legal expert told the Los Angeles Times. "It's an unusual endorsement of Willey's position. It makes Starr's office look desperate to have her testimony." [LAT, March 27, 1999]
Starr continued taking Willey's side despite her apparent failure on a lie-detector test. Steele's lawyers noted in a court hearing that "there is a substantial polygraph issue with regard to their [Starr's] own witnesses." But the gag order limited what was revealed.
Starr's sketchy indictment of Steele and later statements by his prosecutors suggest that the perjury case is built upon three witnesses, described as "friends" of Steele to whom she supposedly confided her knowledge of the Clinton-Willey encounter. One of the friends presumably is Willey, who insists that she told Steele shortly after the 1993 event.
Another woman, called "Jane Doe" in the indictment, has not been clearly identified. The third witness, identified as "John Doe," appears to be a Richmond television producer named Bill Poveromo, who testified before the Alexandria grand jury and partially contradicted Steele's story.
Though the details of his testimony are still secret, Poveromo has stated publicly that he had dinner with Steele in April 1997 and that she mentioned Willey's account of Clinton groping her.
After the Willey story became national news, Poveromo told The Associated Press about his conversation with Steele and insisted that "Julie did know about it right after it happened." [AP, March 21, 1998] The AP article, however, did not explain how Poveromo knew that Steele was aware of the 1993 incident "right after it happened."
The fact that Steele might have mentioned the Willey-Clinton encounter in April 1997 would not necessarily prove that Steele knew about the event in 1993. According to Newsweek, Isikoff approached Steele in March 1997, meaning that Steele could have told Poveromo what she had learned a month earlier, not more than three years earlier.
So, exactly how Poveromo reached his conclusion about when Steele learned of the encounter and exactly what Steele said could be crucial to Starr's case. For her part, Steele has stated that she does not recall discussing the Willey-Clinton matter with Poveromo at all.
Though many journalists view the trial of Julie Hiatt Steele as simply a dangling loose end from Clinton's impeachment trial, the case could clarify a number of troubling ambiguities about this long political crisis.
One of those ambiguities is the motivation behind Starr's operation. Is he the victim of unfair political attacks as he claimed before the Senate? Is he indeed a man with a deep reverence for "the rule of law," as his defenders say?
Or is he one of the greatest threats to that principle and to a healthy democratic system -- a partisan prosecutor who uses the law to settle political scores?
Author/journalist Mollie Dickenson is the author of the biography of White House press secretary Jim Brady, Thumbs Up.