By Sam Coates
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Sympathy can be hard to come by for White House officials who are summoned to appear before a grand jury.
Those whose identities remain a secret suffer in silence, discouraged from reaching out to their closest friends for help. Those whose names leak into the public domain become lightning rods for rumor, suspicion and innuendo, as politicians, commentators and journalists try to divine a meaning behind each summons.
The latest White House staffer to face the grand jury is Susan B. Ralston, assistant to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who gave testimony to the committee investigating the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
But while the politics of every appearance is picked over in minute detail, there is also a human story to each summons that often goes unexplored.
Witnesses face stress, uncertainty and -- worst of all -- crippling lawyer's fees that can take years to pay off. And as prosecutors cast their net ever wider, inexperienced staffers with few financial assets are increasingly facing the emotional and financial burden of grand jury testimony.
Ralston appeared at the end of July on the same day as former Rove aide Israel "Izzy" Hernandez, according to ABC News. The reason Ralston, 37, was asked to testify remains unclear, but it has heightened suspicions that the locus of the investigation still centers on Rove.
Ralston declined to discuss her interview with the grand jury for this article, or the burden that it has caused. Friends said she had not spoken with them about it.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover G. Norquist, who described himself as a friend and a work contact, said he was not aware that she had even testified. "It hasn't come up, and I haven't noticed anything, in work or other contact. I think she's right as rain. On the other hand, I haven't had a conversation about it with her," he said.
But veterans of past grand jury appearances -- including the investigation into President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky -- said that keeping silent compounded an already difficult process.
"It was an incredibly callous and demoralizing experience, one in which they gave no thought to the personal or financial ramifications," said Neel Lattimore, former press secretary to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was subpoenaed about 10 times during his tenure on the job. "Nothing prepares you for what it's like."
Another former Clinton administration official who is now in the private sector and did not want to be identified agreed. "It paralyzes you from doing your job. It turns your life upside down. I sat outside one grand jury room where I could hear the prosecutors screaming -- I'm not kidding -- screaming at a colleague of mine who was a witness."
The two former Clinton aides said that the financial burden was crippling. Like many others, these White House officials had to pay their own legal bills, and these can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some may qualify for a partial reimbursement from the Justice Department, but this usually covers a fraction of the outlay and can take as long as seven years to be paid out. White House aides are even barred from receiving free legal assistance.
"We spent our time on Capitol Hill, and none of us had any assets. It's a scary thing. Lots of people rented apartments, had no assets to their name," said the former Clinton staffer. "If you have a career in public service, you're being paid well under $100,000 a year, and you have student loans; you become paralyzed financially."
Lattimore said that he had to turn to his parents, who loaned him money to cover his legal fees. Lattimore's lawyer, Adam S. Hoffinger, said that the bill for representing someone in a grand jury investigation is usually large. "A white-collar grand jury investigation in D.C. or New York could cost a witness between $10,000 and $100,000, assuming no trial and no criminal exposure," he wrote in an e-mail.
According to a White House report to Congress, Ralston's salary last year was $67,600. In an interview last September with Asian Week, she said that she took a "significant pay cut" in 2001 from her job working with a prominent lobbyist.
Both former Clinton staffers who were asked to appear in the grand jury investigation said there was one silver lining to their experience. They both discovered that there was an informal support network of former White House employees who had been through the grand jury process that transcended party politics.
"There were people from the Reagan administration who reached out to me in the Clinton administration to say it was going to be okay and to say we've been through this," said the former Clinton staffer.
Lattimore cited Margaret Tutwiler, a longtime aide of James A. Baker III, who was caught up during the 1992 campaign in an investigation into Clinton's overseas trips as a student. He said she "expressed real sympathy and said hang in there. There was very much a sense of fraternity among White House employees, no matter what side of the aisle."