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Starr and Willey: The Untold Story | The Nation

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Starr and Willey: The Untold Story

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Too many lies are being told. Too many lives are being ruined. And, I--I think it's time for the truth to come out.   --Kathleen Willey to Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, March 15, 1998, in response to his question about why she decided to go public

Amanda Elk, Rachel Margolis and David Schaenman provided research assistance. This article was supported in part by a Goldsmith Research Award from Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, DC.

About the Author

Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is an investigative reporter and University of Arizona journalism professor.
Florence Graves
Florence Graves, a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University, is one of the reporters who broke the Senator Bob Packwood...

On May 3 Julie Hiatt Steele goes on trial on federal charges that could result in her spending thirty-five years in jail. What's at the heart of her alleged crime? Telling a journalist and independent counsel Kenneth Starr's grand juries that Kathleen Willey--the Virginia woman who claims she was a victim of an unwanted advance from President Clinton, and who became a key element in Starr's effort to impeach the President--is a liar.

Since Willey's allegations came to light in July 1997--when the Internet gossip column Drudge Report said Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff was "hot on the trail of a woman who claims to have been sexually propositioned by the President on federal property"--Willey, 52, has taken center stage at strategic times in the Clinton drama. Her account has advanced the narrative, heightened the tension and increased suspicion that Clinton's behavior was worse than the public suspected.

Steele, who says Willey asked her to lie to Newsweek and say Willey had told her about an unwelcome encounter, has been indicted for obstruction of justice and making false statements. She is the only person ever to be indicted in connection with the Monica Lewinsky affair. During the past year Steele, her daughter, her brother, her accountant and her attorney have been summoned before one of Starr's grand juries. Her telephone records, bank records, tax records and credit history have been subpoenaed. Her friends and neighbors have been questioned by Starr's investigators. Starr's staff has gathered so much information that a room in the independent counsel's office has been labeled the Steele Discovery Room. Steele, 52, says she lost her job because of the publicity, her health has deteriorated and she may lose her home. Even the circumstances of her legal adoption of an infant Romanian orphan have been questioned.

But the story of Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer, and her erstwhile friend Julie Hiatt Steele is much more than the story of two women drawn into a political scandal. The story of how these women became crucial players in the independent counsel's investigation provides graphic detail about the lengths to which Starr and his staff were willing to go in their efforts to find evidence that could impeach the President. It reveals the pressures Starr has brought to bear against ordinary citizens such as Steele, a Virginia woman who has never been involved in politics and whose only connection to his investigation is her consistent refusal under oath to back Willey's story.

Throughout his investigation to determine whether the President or others lied or obstructed justice in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, Starr has handled Willey like an important witness--a Clinton supporter with a dignified demeanor and no apparent ax to grind, who could be brought forward, if necessary, to make the case against the President. Willey is the only person other than Jones who has ever publicly claimed Clinton made an unwanted advance in the workplace, a claim Clinton has emphatically denied. Starr's prosecutors took time from Clinton's four-hour grand jury testimony last August to ask Clinton about Willey's allegations. After sending his impeachment referral to the House last fall, Starr--who has said he never even met Monica Lewinsky--conferred privately with Willey. Shortly before Clinton was impeached, Starr asked House leaders to keep information about Willey secret because disclosure "would jeopardize several ongoing matters." In January Starr's prosecutors asked the judge in Steele's case to require her attorneys to keep much discovery information about Willey confidential to protect their "ongoing investigations." These investigations include looking into whether anyone--including people connected with the White House--tried to influence Willey's testimony in the Jones case or to obstruct justice in Starr's probe.

Willey's credibility is at the heart of Steele's indictment and Starr's related investigations. In court papers filed in Steele's case, Starr's prosecutors say Kathleen Willey is a truth-teller. But a Nation investigation, based on well-placed confidential sources, dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of documents, has found evidence--which Starr either knew about or should have known about--that raises serious doubts about Willey's credibility. This, in turn, raises grave concerns about the integrity of Starr's probe and whether he abused his power by indicting Steele.

Although a distraught Willey said on 60 Minutes that she considered giving Clinton "a good slap across the face" after the alleged advance, the evidence suggests she was not the victim of an unwanted advance, as she has claimed publicly and under oath, and that she was actively seeking a sexual relationship with the President. The Nation has learned of six people who say Willey told them she was thrilled by an alleged encounter with the President. Starr is aware of at least five of these people. In fact, a knowledgeable source believes Starr's investigators found only one person, a close friend of Willey's, who generally supports Willey's claim that she was upset by an alleged advance. Starr's key witness, Linda Tripp--who became friends with Willey when they both worked at the White House--told Starr's grand jury that Willey plotted for months about how to start an affair with Clinton. Willey's former friend Harolyn Cardozo told the grand jury that Willey speculated she might become the President's mistress. Another person who knew Willey at the White House, Marlene MacDonald, a former press-office employee, told Starr's investigators that Willey was attracted to the President and that she had mentioned a welcomed encounter long after the incident allegedly occurred. Given Willey's statements to her, MacDonald said she found Willey's 60 Minutes claims unbelievable.

Despite claiming to be a reluctant witness in the Jones case, Willey may have choreographed some events that made her story both public and marketable. Although Willey told 60 Minutes's Ed Bradley that she had planned to take her story to her grave, Lynn Nesbit, a top New York agent, confirms that Willey tried to sell her story before it had ever been made public. Records show that Willey called the agency at least two months before the first Newsweek article about her was published.

Furthermore, Willey also appears to have made a number of misleading, evasive or possibly false statements under oath in her January 11, 1998, deposition in the Jones case. A review of papers filed in that case indicates that Willey was not forthcoming in some dealings with two federal judges, repeatedly saying in court documents that she had no relevant information when in fact she had secretly cooperated, through her attorney, with Jones's lawyers before any aspect of her story had become public. If Starr's investigators had carefully reviewed documents they had relating to extensive legal actions involving Willey's efforts to avoid paying a $274,000 debt, they could have seen red flags. The evidence suggests she made a number of misleading and evasive statements under oath during those proceedings.

Despite questions about Willey's veracity, Starr chose to indict Steele for making false statements and obstructing justice in the Jones case. Starr contends that Steele lied when, at the request of Clinton's legal team, she signed an affidavit for the Jones case--never actually filed--saying Willey had never told her about an unwelcome advance by the President and that Willey asked her to lie and support this allegation.

The evidence suggests that Starr decided soon after the Lewinsky story broke on January 21, 1998, to believe Willey's allegations about the President, and that he was so anxious to get her testimony that he gave her an unusual transactional immunity agreement in exchange for her cooperation. Several former prosecutors, including Lawrence Barcella, an assistant US Attorney for sixteen years, say transactional immunity, which grants complete immunity from prosecution, is given rarely and only after establishing a witness is crucial and very credible.

Starr said Willey would not be prosecuted "for any offense arising out of" his investigation, including her deposition in the Jones lawsuit. Willey's agreement says she was given immunity at her lawyer's request "out of an abundance of caution and not because you believe you intentionally answered any question incorrectly nor committed any offense." Starr also promised not to give any incriminating information that might be found to any other jurisdiction. Former federal prosecutors say it is unusual to grant such sweeping immunity unless the witness acknowledges a crime that warrants it.

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