By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Dan Moldea has been beaten up by thugs, trashed in the press, accused of chilling free speech and threatened with prosecution.
And yet after an improbable, colorful career in journalism, he remains a historical footnote for one cameo role: as a sex investigator for Larry Flynt a decade ago.
So when Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, recently asked him to resume his digging into the extramarital exploits of politicians, Moldea had misgivings.
"Please understand that if we work together again . . . I am going to be tracked and harassed," he wrote in a June 9 memo to Flynt. "I'm going to be judged harshly by my friends and colleagues for reentering this world with you in what will be viewed as the mother lode of checkbook journalism. In addition, I will receive more bad press than I have ever received before."
Once again, Moldea is chasing tips from people hoping to score a million-dollar reward proffered by Flynt in a full-page Washington Post ad. Once again, Moldea is justifying his role as holding accountable those who preach moral values but act differently in their private lives.
One month after rekindling their partnership, Moldea learned that Sen. David Vitter's number had been found in the phone records of the escort service run by the alleged D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey. This was no coincidence, as Moldea had just agreed to write a book with Palfrey. He promptly leaked the Vitter calls to Time. And when the Louisiana Republican preempted the magazine by apologizing for having sinned, Moldea made sure Flynt got credit by leaking word of his role to ABC News.
"I don't want to look like I'm boasting about this," says Moldea. "I just think it's in bad taste, which is an ironic term to use." He refused to be photographed for this article.
"I'm not doing these things for money. I'm not doing these things because I'm going to get great publicity. I'm doing these things on principle, out of conscience."
Palfrey, who is under indictment on prostitution-related charges, considers him an ideal partner. "I didn't want a writer of sensational Hollywood works," she says. "I really need a hard-core investigative journalist here. I thought, this is the man to do it. He's a good and decent man, and very upfront and straightforward."
Moldea has hit plenty of bumps on the career road. "He's had some down times," says author Laurence Leamer, a longtime friend. "So many projects he's worked on haven't worked out. Nothing stops the guy."
A balding, bespectacled man with large, meaty hands, Moldea, 57, is rumpled but supremely organized. During a chat at Morty's deli on Wisconsin Avenue -- where he also joins a weekly poker game and threw a dinner for Palfrey -- he offers transcripts, clippings, an affidavit and other material, all neatly arranged in file folders.
The Akron, Ohio, native has led a Zelig-like existence, popping up on the periphery of history as he careened from writing about Jimmy Hoffa to Robert Kennedy, from O.J. Simpson to Vince Foster to Ken Starr.
"I've got two Republicans I've thrown back in the water because, to me, they haven't shown any hypocrisy," he says, explaining that they are current members of Congress who he believes have sexually strayed.
Moldea began his career in the 1970s as a freelance writer specializing in organized crime. Once, he says, a crooked Teamsters official rammed a gun down his throat, causing him to spit blood and parts of teeth. Another time, he says, labor goons in Chicago beat him up and "I thought they had left me for dead." A friendly Teamster told Moldea that a $1,500 contract had been put out on his life, warning in a conversation that the reporter taped: "I'm just telling you! You better watch your goddamn step, or you're going to get yourself killed!"
"I was more humiliated by the price," Moldea says. His solution: leave Ohio for Washington.
He made national news in 1990, when he sued the New York Times over a negative review of his book "Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football," which a Times sportswriter dismissed for its "sloppy journalism." Detractors said the suit could promote censorship. Moldea argued that the review was inaccurate and had torpedoed his career, but the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal after the trial judge threw out the case.
Moldea managed to return to publishing. He wrote a book on the RFK assassination that, despite his earlier suspicions, concluded Sirhan Sirhan acted alone. He wrote a book with two Los Angeles detectives who had investigated the Simpson case. That led to an invitation from conservative publisher Alfred Regnery to write a book on Foster, the Clinton White House aide whose body was found in a Virginia park.
After securing a $100,000 contract, Moldea concluded that Foster's death was, as authorities maintained, a suicide. "Instead of the Clintons being involved in a grand conspiracy to take out Vince Foster, this was really a conspiracy by a bunch of right-wing journalists to make it look that way," Moldea says.
He says the publishing company was unenthusiastic about his findings. Regnery, however, says he just wanted "an honest book. There were some people in the office who weren't pleased. They wanted to show that Hillary had murdered him or something." He describes Moldea as "a little prickly, but that's okay."
Moldea had called the office of special prosecutor Starr -- who had investigated Foster's death -- and spoke by phone with Starr's deputy, Jackie Bennett, and another official. Moldea admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he recorded them without their knowledge.
Initially, he says, "I didn't want the tapes to come out because I knew I'm going to get my head chopped off" for taping without permission. But he says he was "disturbed" by his conclusion that Starr's prosecutors would leak to him if they thought he was a friendly reporter.
"An absolute lie, and you can quote me," Bennett says in response. "That was invented."
Moldea asked to speak to Starr, and Bennett told him, according to the transcript, that if he was looking for "substantive information . . . then there are other people who really are better to talk to." Bennett says he was just trying to accommodate a journalist's request.
Several months later -- after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke -- Moldea went public with his tape. Moldea might have been seeking confidential information himself, but now, in light of the attacks on Clinton, he accused the Starr team of improper leaking.
"I remember being agitated at the time," Bennett says. "It was a dishonest thing to do. . . . He misled us."
Moldea's move caught the attention of attorneys for President Clinton, who was battling the Republican effort to impeach him, and the reporter submitted an affidavit detailing his allegations.
In late 1998, Moldea says, a private detective put him in touch with Flynt, who asked him to investigate whether Clinton's opponents had also engaged in sexual dalliances. "It took me about five seconds to say yes," Moldea says. He was angry about the effort to drive Clinton from office, and signed on for $125 an hour.
Moldea soon learned that Bob Livingston, a Republican congressman from Louisiana who was on the verge of becoming House speaker, had engaged in extramarital affairs. Livingston promptly resigned, and Flynt decided not to release the details. He gave Moldea a $35,000 bonus for the discovery.
Moldea also says he discovered that the outgoing speaker, Newt Gingrich, was having an affair with a House aide who is now his third wife. But, he says, Flynt decided not to out Gingrich because he had already quit.
At the time, Moldea told this reporter that "some Republicans on Capitol Hill should be sending us flowers and thank-you cards. They weren't going on TV talk shows shooting off their mouths [about Clinton], or going to the floor of Congress to seize the moral high ground. We've thrown them back in the river."
Conservative critics interpreted that as a veiled threat by Moldea to expose only Republican philanderers who criticized Clinton. A Wall Street Journal editorial, titled "Abetting Blackmail," said: "One Dan Moldea has appeared from almost nowhere to volunteer as the source of Mr. Flynt's dirt." The piece questioned whether Moldea was "being aided and abetted by agents of the president," which he denied.
The conservative Landmark Legal Foundation asked the Justice Department to investigate, saying that Moldea "appears to have been endeavoring to influence and impede these congressional proceedings" against Clinton.
Moldea fervently believes he played a role in the Senate's subsequent acquittal of Clinton, although it never appeared there were enough Democratic votes to oust the president. "There was a right-wing attempt to overthrow the executive branch of government, and I thought I could be sacrificed," Moldea says. "This was important enough for me to risk being destroyed."
But there was a plus side for Moldea. "He loves getting attention," Leamer says. "He loves seeing his name. He really gets off on that."
Once the dust settled, Moldea fell on hard times. He turned to consulting, mainly for liberal public-interest groups, to make ends meet. Moldea has not won a book contract since the late 1990s. "Some people have hit a wall with me where they just feel I'm trouble," he says.
In March, after the D.C. Madam story broke, Moldea says he thought that "maybe I could get back in the game again." He had lunch with Palfrey and they signed a contract to collaborate on a book about her life and her battle against prostitution-related charges. No publisher has been found yet.
"The idea behind this is, I'm desperately strapped for cash," says Palfrey, noting that she has made $3,250 since October. "I'm also doing a book because I need to get the truth out."
Moldea, who had started doing some minor consulting for Flynt, tried to put him together with Palfrey so they could join forces in hunting for sexual hypocrites. When that fell apart, Moldea quit the Hustler operation. But he tried again in the June memo.
"Unfortunately, when I came to you with Jeane Palfrey, you blew her off," Moldea wrote. "With respect, I believe that was a mistake. . . . You and Jeane can make history."
After a lunch at the Ritz-Carlton, Moldea and Flynt were back in business, with the reporter charging $175 an hour. Flynt offered another million-dollar reward for information about the sexual high jinks of public officials. And when Flynt mentioned in an MSNBC interview who was heading the investigation, he dragged Moldea out of the shadows.
"What are you doing? You just put a target on my back," Moldea recalls telling him.
In early July, after a federal judge lifted a restraining order on the release of Palfrey's phone records, her lawyer gave Moldea a 48-hour jump before other reporters got access to the material. When Moldea found Vitter's number, he called Flynt. Moldea quickly produced a memo on the senator's history of championing moral values and the sanctity of marriage.
Now Moldea is knee-deep in sexual allegations, and with Clinton's wife seeking the presidency, Moldea is again warning darkly of conspiracies.
"I have it on very, very good authority that major opposition research has already been conducted on Bill Clinton, and it's going to be a massive smear campaign against him," he says. A group of former intelligence officers, he says, is "going to try to cripple Hillary through Bill."
Dan Moldea, in short, is facing the world alone -- except for his longtime girlfriend, an elementary school teacher -- and that, it seems, is the way he likes it.
"I have been out there battling by myself," he says. "It hasn't been pretty, that's for sure."