Sideswiped by scandal, trapped by the past

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009 9:53 AM

Emily Miller says she's nervous.

"Everything that's ever been written about me is horrible," she announces, twisting her pulled-back hair after a sleepless night.

She wants to be understood. She doesn't want to be defined by her past. It is a uniquely Washington sort of past in which an ambitious young political aide falls in love and is indirectly brushed by scandal. But her history has become a box, a trap, a prison from which there is seemingly no escape. It adheres to her like Velcro, infects her Facebook page, and will soon, despite her protests, be a Hollywood movie.

Miller blames "the Googlization of America" as she sips her coffee at Starbucks, dressed simply in black sweater, bluejeans and brown boots. "It's just been so hard to get past this narrative."

Once she spoke for Tom DeLay, traveled the world with Colin Powell. Now she's forced to get by with freelance writing, retail jobs, babysitting -- and her latest incarnation as gossip columnist for the Web site Politics Daily. The 38-year-old woman who has borne the brunt of endless gossip is trying her hand at dishing about others.

"She was already a source for all the gossip columnists in town -- it seemed like a no-brainer," says Politics Daily Editor-in-Chief Melinda Henneberger. "She's been through a lot, and that's something a lot of people can relate to."

Miller is chatty and candid and impassioned and disarming and, understandably, a bit self-absorbed. A one-time journalist who became a Republican spokeswoman, she knows her tale has been reduced to one tantalizing phrase: Jilted fiancee seeks revenge. It's not true, she insists, but she gets why that doesn't matter. She went underground for years, spurned the spotlight, even turned down Stone Phillips when he flew her to New York to woo her for a "Dateline" special.

"At the end of the day, what do I get?" Miller asks. "I get to be known as the woman scorned, forever?"

She claims to be well past the events that turned her into a pawn in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, but as she talks about each twist and turn, the words pouring out in torrents, it is clear that the wounds remain raw.

"She thinks everyone's always out to get her," says longtime friend Shanti Stanton, a Democratic lobbyist. "It's hard for her to trust people. She's been screwed over by her friends. She feels that when she goes out, all anyone wants to talk about is the scandal."

In 2002, while Miller was DeLay's press secretary, she got engaged to Michael Scanlon, an athletic, charismatic operative who also had worked for the congressman, then the House majority whip. "It was a bad relationship," Miller says. "It was so tumultuous." But, she says, "he was the first person I ever fell in love with."

To say that both were hard-charging staffers is an understatement. After Washington Post reporter Peter Perl questioned some of DeLay's relatives for a profile, Miller called with what Perl described as a "scathing tirade": "You lied! . . . You betrayed him! You twisted his words! . . . We don't know you. You don't exist. . . . You are dead to us."

As for Scanlon, he e-mailed another DeLay aide during Bill Clinton's impeachment battle that even though the president was down, "You kick him until he passes out. Then beat him over the head with a baseball bat, then roll him up in an old rug and throw him off a cliff into the pound surf below!!!!!"

By the time of the engagement, Scanlon, who initially left the House to work for Abramoff, was running his own public relations shop. He soon persuaded Miller to quit her job with DeLay, creating a foundation for underprivileged children for her to run. He wanted to move to Rehoboth Beach and showed her a $4.7 million home he was eyeing, complete with weight room and sauna. "I said, 'Absolutely not; I will not live in this ridiculous oversized mansion,' " Miller recalls. "He bought it behind my back."

The day before her bridal shower, Miller says, Scanlon called off the wedding. They reconciled, Scanlon backed out again, and three weeks later he married a 24-year-old waitress from the Delaware resort town.

Miller was devastated. She had grown attached to Scanlon's young son, but after befriending his ex-wife, she was told the woman's child-support agreement would be jeopardized if Miller continued seeing the boy. Pulling herself together, she talked her way into a job as Powell's deputy press secretary at the State Department. But she would soon hear echoes of the past.

In 2004, The Post reported that Scanlon and Abramoff, one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, had persuaded four Indian gaming tribes to pay their firms more than $45 million. The FBI contacted Miller months later and arranged an interview with two young female agents, who questioned her on matters ranging from Scanlon's strange use of different first names to his work for the tribes. Her lawyer had warned her to limit her answers, but Miller says she babbled on after the agents commiserated with her romantic turmoil. The lawyer chided her afterward: "You won't shut up!"

In the fall of 2005, Scanlon was charged with conspiring with Abramoff to bribe government officials and bilk millions from the tribes, with Scanlon's firm collecting the money and kicking back half of the profit to Abramoff. Scanlon pleaded guilty three days later, offering to pay nearly $20 million in restitution and help with prosecutors in the case. Scanlon hasn't been sentenced; his lawyer, Stephen Braga, says Scanlon is "still cooperating with the Justice Department."

Miller knew that Scanlon had been working with the tribes. "I wish I could say I was totally in the dark," she says. "I knew what his business was. . . . I didn't know what he was doing was illegal."

Miller's role remained hidden until 2006, when the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page piece with a dot-matrix drawing of her. The headline: "Behind Unraveling of DeLay's Team, a Jilted Fiancee."

"It's just absurd," Miller says. "I've never met Abramoff." Miller says she spoke to the reporter, Brody Mullins, on a not-for-attribution basis, telling him that his story line was wrong.

The article itself was carefully worded. "The story makes clear that prosecutors came to her, not the other way around," says Jerry Seib, the Journal's executive Washington editor. But with "the National Enquirer kind of headline," she says, the impression was left "that Emily Miller went to the FBI and turned them in, dropped a dime, because I'd been cheated on and left at the altar."

* * *

After a career spent behind the scenes, Miller instinctively recoils from the spotlight, still more comfortable speaking for a principal than for herself. But even in that role she was a magnet for conflict.

In the spring of 2004 she was traveling in Jordan with Powell, who was doing a round of pre-taped interviews with the Sunday talk shows. Each network was allotted 10 minutes, but while Powell sweated in the hot Mideast sun, "Meet the Press" was running several minutes long. Exasperated, Miller ordered the audio feed switched to Fox, and the camera panned to a wide shot of trees in front of the Dead Sea. But NBC's audio remained intact.

Tim Russert complained from Washington: "I would hope they would put you back on camera. . . . I think that was one of your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate."

As the delay dragged on, Powell ordered: "Emily, get out of the way. Bring the camera back, please." Powell's image returned to the screen, and Russert asked his last question.

When the traveling party got to Ireland and saw that "Meet the Press" had aired the dispute, Miller burst into tears in front of reporters. "I'm hysterically crying in the airport," says Miller, still insisting that NBC should have edited out those exchanges. "It was just ridiculous. My job is to protect my boss and make him look good."

Perhaps the incident was all the more frustrating to Miller, whose father ran a truck-sales company, because she started her career at NBC. A Baltimore native who graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in international relations, Miller became a researcher at NBC and later moved to ABC, where she rose to the rank of associate producer on "This Week." Miller worked every weekend and eventually realized that she "didn't want to spend the rest of my life in dark editing rooms." It was then that she made the jump to politics, surviving a job interview with DeLay by warning herself, "Don't show fear."

The process of recounting her life is a difficult one for Miller. A day after a lengthy conversation at Starbucks, she says by phone: "I'm really feeling awful about talking to you yesterday. . . . I walked out of there saying, 'Emily, Em, he's not your friend, what are you doing?' "

Miller does have a tendency to over-answer questions. "I just have no filter, and I really need to work on that," she says. "If it's in my head, it comes out of my mouth."

Her latest fixation is the possibility of Hollywood stardom, but of a distinctly perverse variety. A movie about the Abramoff case is headed for release next year, and Emily Miller is a character -- over her fervent opposition.

Director George Hickenlooper, whose film is called "Casino Jack," has visited Abramoff in prison several times, once with Kevin Spacey in tow. Hickenlooper, who is sympathetic to Abramoff, approached Miller for help. She was stunned to learn that she had a prominent role.

"I was, like, hyperventilating," she recalls. "I said, 'I will do anything. Please take me out of this movie.' " Hickenlooper said he was already in preproduction; Miller says he reneged on promises to show her the script. Hickenlooper says he offered to share the script in person -- "You are extremely cool. I am psyched to have dinner with you," he messaged her on Facebook -- but that she stopped returning his calls. She says the idea of dinner "creeped me out." The director later left Miller a voice mail saying that actress Rachelle Lefevre would portray her.

While preparing for the part, Lefevre told Gotham magazine, "I bought these intensely spiky Fendi and Christian Dior stilettos. I felt she was a little bit 'vanity first,' and it helped me find her as a character."

Miller felt she was losing custody of her own name. She is known among her friends for her outdated, lackluster wardrobe. "I wear ugly pantsuits and flat shoes," she says. "Now this dimwit Hollywood actress who knows nothing about me is talking about what I would wear."

Determined to fight back, Miller went online and tracked down Spacey's Twitter account. She began shooting messages to Spacey, who plays Abramoff, saying it was unfair to include her without her permission. "Well, I have nothing to do with clearances & such but a great deal of the story is public domain, I would guess," Spacey tweeted back.

When Miller finally got a copy of the script from a friend, her shock turned to horror. "I'm a bitch, I'm materialistic, I'm bad in bed," she says. There is an early scene -- set in DeLay's office on the night of George W. Bush's first inauguration -- in which she is making out with Scanlon, who introduces her to Abramoff. There is a later scene in which she is going through Scanlon's pants pockets and finds a pair of red-lace panties from the girlfriend he's seeing on the side. The Miller character marches to the FBI, indicates she has something to report, and drops the panties on the agent's desk. Later, Scanlon tells Abramoff that his now-former fiancee knew all about their fraud scheme and had blown the whistle, prompting the lobbyist to curse Scanlon and lunge after him.

The false narrative had returned, packaged for theatrical release. "It makes me abetting a federal crime," Miller says. She pauses. "I'm getting all worked up again."

Hickenlooper sees it differently. He says he deferred half of his usual salary because the project is a labor of love. The "very balanced" movie, he says, is like an Oliver Stone production, "a narrative interpretation of the events that capture the spirit of what happened, based on research. . . .

"I'm not sure what Emily Miller is complaining about. She comes across as kind of the hero of the movie. She says, 'It's an outrage, they're trying to make a buck on me.' She's trying to build up attention for herself. She's not misrepresented in the film."

Hickenlooper keeps trying to win her over, writing on Miller's Facebook page: "You are terrific in it! And you look gorgeous!"

But how, in what he admits is a partly fictional work with consolidated characters, can he use Miller's real name, rather than changing it? "Because our lawyer said we didn't have to," Hickenlooper says.

Disgusted, Miller hid the script under her couch cushions. But that project, it turns out, is only half of her problem. Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is working on an Abramoff documentary for release next year, also called "Casino Jack," which also features Miller. He contacted Miller and tried to persuade her to be interviewed on camera; she refused. Somehow, the tale she desperately wants to bury keeps coming back to life.

* * *

Emily Miller is both dating and writing about dating.

"I have never been married, and I WANT to fall in love and get married. There, I said it," she told Politics Daily readers. "Why does a girl have to hide this very normal desire for fear of scaring off potential husbands?"

Miller isn't hiding anymore. In one of her first gossip columns, she praised former congressman Bob Ney for rebuilding his life after serving time for his role in the Abramoff debacle. She called his radio show and they commiserated about being in the Hickenlooper film. "When you go through a D.C. scandal together," Miller wrote, "you're like war buddies."

She is enjoying her columnist's role, filing stories as late as 2:30 a.m., attempting to focus on "good and positive and courageous people, not the typical bold-name people in D.C." Miller has become obsessed with her Web traffic, checking the figures constantly: "Oh my God, I'm up, I'm up, I'm down! I need to write something better!"

But leaving her old self behind is not so simple. Once, her former NBC colleague Andrea Mitchell was startled to find her working in a high-end gift shop. "Times are tough, Andrea," Miller explained. She has crossed paths with Scanlon a few times at a downtown gym, venturing a hello, but he merely glared at her. Others are also keeping their distance; most of the people she recommends to vouch for her from her professional heyday do not respond to messages.

Miller has downsized her life. She is teaching Sunday school at Georgetown's Christ Church and burrowing into her tight circle of friends. In her Capitol Hill days, says Stanton, Miller "was much more abrasive. She's let her sweeter side out."

Miller admits her personality wasn't always pretty. The scandal blew up her carefully ordered world, the world of so many drawn to Washington's marble corridors, and she is still picking up the pieces.

"It's forced me to look at what truly matters in life," she says. "I was so ambitious in my 20s and early 30s. I worked all the time. It was all about success and power. Somehow I thought that would make me happy, and make me feel good about myself.

"It's only by losing that -- by not having the title to use at a cocktail party -- that made me realize what matters is your relationships, friendships, community, family, my church. I've definitely developed a sense of empathy and compassion for others who are struggling."

Getting to 60

So how did the press play the Senate Democrats mustering enough votes to get the health care bill to the floor?

NYT: "a crucial, preliminary hurdle in a formidable display of muscle-flexing by the Democratic majority."

WP: "a milestone in the decades-old quest for health-care reform, President Obama's top legislative priority."

WashTimes: "setting up weeks of skirmishes over touchy subjects - ranging from abortion to access for illegal immigrants -- and its hefty price tag, which challenge the fate of President Obama's ambitious goal."

Politico: "Harry Reid eked out 60 votes on a procedural motion to start the health care debate Saturday night -- but there's no guarantee he can pass a bill on the merits."

LAT: "If President Barack Obama is unable to sign a healthcare overhaul into law by the midterm vote, the GOP will be painting a picture of a president unable to work his will with his own party in control. If there is healthcare reform and more to present at the polls in 2010, the GOP will be cast by the people in power as an obstructionist, no-solution party."

Palin to the rescue?

That's Bill Kristol's fantasy:

"The new Rasmussen poll for the 2010 Arizona GOP Primary -- John McCain 45%, J. D. Hayworth 43% -- will generate a fair amount of buzz. But August is a long way away, and I assume that when McCain gets back to Arizona and campaigns, he'll pull it out.

"Still, who could help McCain beat back a populist conservative challenger? Sarah Palin. I predict that Palin will come to Arizona next summer to campaign for McCain, will make an impassioned case for him, and will help him win."

Who lost Oprah?

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley blames the media:

"The mayor says it was the flap over the show's season opener on Michigan Avenue in September that may have helped set Oprah's travel plans in stone. There was criticism about shutting down the Magnificent Mile for days for the taping. She reimbursed the city for costs related to the closure. 'That became a big rhubarb in the Chicago press -- beat up Oprah,' Daley told reporters. 'So you keep kicking people, people will leave, simple as that.' . . .

"Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper joked on CBS 2 Morning News: 'I think he's officially lost his mind. I think Richie has gone over the deep end.' "

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company