“It’s definitely deja vu,” said Ida Maxine Wells, a former secretary at the Democratic National Committee and, currently, a 53-year-old liberal arts dean at Baton Rouge (La.) Community College.
Wells is suing Watergate conspirator and radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy, 71, for defamation and wants $5 million as compensation for the damage she alleges he did to her reputation when he said, in two speeches given in 1996 and 1997, that Watergate was all about a call-girl ring. In Wells’s desk drawer at the DNC, according to the theory, she kept pictures of 12 prostitutes in see-through negligees.
The first time Wells’s suit reached court, the judge threw it out, but the appeals court reinstated it. The first trial a year and a half ago resulted in a hung jury, after which the judge threw out the case again. The 4th Circuit revived Wells’s legal claim again, and now the case is being retried, like a TV rerun being shown during the summer doldrums.
Wells is being represented by David M. Dorsen, a man who has spent much of his professional life working on Watergate cases, originally as an attorney in the 1970s for the Senate Watergate Committee. He subscribes to the traditional theory of Watergate, which holds that men loyal to Republican President Richard M. Nixon broke into the DNC’s offices to repair a phone tap that was keeping tabs on the opposition.
Liddy is being represented by John B. Williams, who maintains that the case is all about the First Amendment. If Wells wins, he said during a break in the trial today, “people will not be able to talk about this theory anymore. And it’s a theory that makes sense to a lot of people.” He added that no one should be prevented from “speaking out about history, particularly when he’s repeating the published literature.”
After a seven-member jury was selected this morning, Dorsen began his opening statements describing Wells, who grew up in small towns in Mississippi and still talks with a soft drawl, as a woman from “a very, very religious upbringing” who, one year out of college, “came to Washington with her mother and went to work at the DNC.” She was very innocent, he said, of the “wiles of the big city.”
Dorsen described the arc of Wells’s career as leaving the DNC soon after the break-in, returning to Washington to work in the White House of President Jimmy Carter, then most recently receiving a doctorate in modern American literature from Louisiana State University two years ago.
“Is this the kind of person who, at 22 or 23, was referring men to prostitutes?” Dorsen asked the jurors.
Liddy’s attorneys, who maintain that the break-in occurred to “get sexual dirt to use against the Democrats,” showed jurors a 20th-anniversary Watergate documentary that ran on the A&E network. The video focused on the fact that no motive for the break-in has ever been confirmed, and it included an interview with Carl Shoffler, a D.C. police officer who has since died, who found a key to Wells’s desk in the pocket of a Watergate burglar.
“We wouldn’t be sitting around again with all the puzzling and all the mysteries had we taken the time to find out what that key was about,” Shoffler said in the “Investigative Reports” video.
The audience in the courtroom was scarce through much of the proceedings. Several interns from the U.S. attorney’s office, most of whom had not been born when Watergate happened, came to the room to listen to some of the opening statements, and a 64-year-old retired investment banker came, too. He had come for about a third of the first trial. He said that this time around, he was interested in seeing the show, start to finish.
Another man who was part of the morning’s jury pool but wasn’t chosen stayed the whole day, anyway, to watch the proceedings.
The trial is expected to last about three weeks.