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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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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.

What Starr Knew

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...

Willey was given this agreement even though Starr should have known she made what appear to be a number of misleading or evasive statements in the Jones case and even though Starr's investigators had interviewed Linda Tripp--who undercut Willey's claims--five times before the agreement was signed on March 6, 1998.

According to FBI interviews, Tripp said Willey not only was lying about an unwanted advance from the President but also had been trying to entice him into a sexual relationship. Tripp said, "Willey described several ways she would pursue the President. Willey would arrange to cover evening social functions where the President would be present" and tried to attract his attention with outfits such as "a particular black dress which accentuated" her cleavage. Tripp says Willey discussed places she and the President might rendezvous. Tripp testified that she saw Willey after her meeting with the President and that Willey "smiled from ear to ear the entire time. She seemed almost shocked, but happy shocked."

Despite grand jury testimony from Tripp and others who raised doubts about Willey's credibility, Starr continued to rely on her. Willey's allegations on 60 Minutes shocked the country, and many members of Congress and the media assumed she would be part of any impeachment referral he might make. But Starr had several problems. Only Clinton and Willey know for sure what happened the afternoon they met, but Starr had evidence damaging to both. Some evidence suggested Clinton may have lied in his Jones deposition and grand jury testimony when he said he had never made a sexual advance to Willey. But Starr also had evidence indicating that Willey--like Monica Lewinsky--was trying to entice the President into an affair, and that if anything happened, she welcomed it. Starr also had another big problem, according to information pieced together by The Nation. He was preparing an impeachment referral on Clinton for lying about a sexual affair, but his investigators had learned Willey lied to them about one of her sexual relationships--an affair reported by Time that suggested Willey could be deceptive and vindictive.

A well-placed source says that last September, Starr's investigators confronted Willey, who had told them that the March 30, 1998, Time article--which reported that Willey had concocted a scheme to punish her lover by claiming she was pregnant when she wasn't--was completely false. On September 4 the investigators told Willey that they had interviewed Shaun Docking, the man she had been involved with, and knew Willey had been untruthful with them. Willey acknowledged she had lied to them, but insisted she had been truthful about everything else, including her allegations about Clinton, and offered to take a polygraph test.

On September 9 Willey took a lie detector test, which focused on her allegations about Clinton and Steele. She had serious problems with that test but reportedly passed a second one on September 15. However, experts say that to understand a test's significance, it is important to know how questions were phrased, their relevance to the investigation and whether the same questions were asked in both tests--information Starr has not made public. In court, one of Steele's attorneys, Eric Dubelier, a former Starr prosecutor, characterized the polygraph results of one of Starr's key witnesses as a "substantial" problem. The Nation has learned he was referring to Willey. The magazine has also learned that Willey was never asked the question that would have gotten at the truth of her core allegation: Did the President make an unwelcome sexual advance?

Despite these serious questions about Willey's veracity, Starr continued to press Steele. Steele's lead attorney, Nancy Luque, says that in a private meeting on November 9, Starr's prosecutor David Barger repeatedly pressured Steele to change her story, suggesting she could avoid prosecution if she would simply say Willey had told her something about a sexual advance from Clinton. Any form of corroboration would have satisfied him, Luque believes, as long as Steele would stop saying Willey asked her to lie. (When Steele testified on April 2 of this year about Starr's tactics at Whitewater defendant Susan McDougal's trial, she told the jury she felt she could have avoided indictment "by changing my story.") Steele "left the meeting in tears."

Four days after that meeting, as House Judiciary Committee Republicans were seeking as much evidence as possible to impeach Clinton, Starr responded to their request to forward his investigative files on Willey, who had not been part of his referral.

One source knowledgeable about Starr's investigation says Republicans discovered that Starr's own evidence includes "many witnesses" who found Willey's 60 Minutes claims of an unwelcome advance "highly dubious given her previous statements to them." Starr could never have used Willey in an impeachment referral, the source says, because his files paint "a picture that raises enormous questions about Kathleen Willey's credibility." But Starr asked the House to keep the files secret, so the public was never told this. Instead, Starr, aided by the press, helped maintain the impression that--after the Lewinsky referral--Willey might be the next shoe to drop.

During this period David Schippers, the chief Republican impeachment investigator, interviewed Willey, acccording to press reports. But plans to call her to testify were reportedly scrapped after strong objections by Starr, who said her appearance could jeopardize his continuing investigation.

During this time, Steele says, Starr's prosecutors continued pressuring her. When Starr testified during the impeachment hearings on November 19 and was asked by the President's attorney, David Kendall, whether his investigators had raised questions about Steele's adoption of a Romanian orphan, Starr became visibly angry. The following day Barger wrote Luque giving her four days to provide reasons why Steele should not be indicted.

On January 7, the day Clinton's impeachment trial began, Julie Hiatt Steele was indicted. The next day the Associated Press reported that "House Republican officials said consideration was being given to trying to have Kathleen Willey summoned as a witness" in Clinton's trial. Three days later two House managers, Representatives Asa Hutchinson and Lindsey Graham, met privately with Willey and her attorney. Because Willey had not been part of Starr's referral, Hutchinson said they decided her allegations "were not clearly related" to the articles of impeachment approved by the House.

Starr's zealous pursuit of a peripheral figure like Steele has left Washington lawyers mystified. Steele insists she is telling the truth about Willey, but even if she is dissembling, Starr's own files contain extensive evidence Willey may not have been truthful about many aspects of her story, including her claims about Steele. For example, Steele says Willey called her after a meeting with Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff and asked Steele to support her story. A knowledgeable source says Willey initially denied making that call, but when Starr's investigators confronted her with cell-phone records showing she had called Steele, Willey said she didn't remember.

Although Starr has never stated what Steele's motive to lie might be, the indictment suggests he's convinced she was pressured by the White House to contradict Willey. A Washington Post editorial noted the prosecutor's "impeccable timing," suggesting the indictment was actually intended to telegraph a message to the senators acting as jurors, as well as to the court of public opinion: If not for Julie Hiatt Steele, Kathleen Willey would be one more reason to convict Clinton.

Starr hasn't said whether he will call Willey to testify at Steele's trial. Deputy independent counsel Edward Page says that because of Virginia court and grand jury secrecy rules, Starr's office will not comment on any aspect of the case. Willey's attorney, Daniel Gecker, said neither he nor Willey could comment for the record. However, Starr's prosecutors have indicated they will call at least two witnesses to try to prove that Steele lied when she said Willey never told her Clinton had groped her. But Michael Morchower, a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who represents one of Starr's key witnesses, "Jane Doe #1," said in a recent interview that the case is "about a bunch of gossip among a group of women" whose "chitchat" got twisted.

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