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
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.