Mills Admits Being Present During Tidal Basin Scuffle
By Stephen Green and Margot Hornblower
Washington Post Staff Writers
Oct. 11, 1974
© The Washington Post
Rep. Wilbur D. Mills (D-Ark.) yesterday broke three days of silence and denials by admitting that U.S. Park Police found him with his face cut after they stopped his speeding car near the Tidal Basin at 2 a.m. Monday.
In a statement issued by his Capitol Hill office, Mills said his face was cut from his eyeglasses, which broke as he tried to stop an ill woman neighbor, Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, from leaving the vehicle, which, according to police, had no lights on. Identified by police as Annabell Battistella, 38, the woman jumped into the Tidal Basin and was rescued after the car was stopped.
Mills, 65, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he had left his wife, Polly, home at her request Sunday night as she had a broken foot. He said he left to give a party for Gloria Sanchez, who he said was a cousin of Mr. and Mrs. Battistella and was visiting the couple from Argentina. Police said Mrs. Sanchez also was in the car.
Mills said Mr. and Mrs. Eduardo Battistella have "grown to become close" friends of his family since Mills and his wife last year moved into the luxury Arlington apartment complex where the Battistellas reside.
Police said both Mills and Mrs. Battistella were intoxicated and Mills was bleeding from his nose and scratches on his face. Mrs. Sanchez and another man and woman in the car had been drinking, police said.
Mill’s statement said nothing about drinking, and left unclear many other things about the incident and the other occupants of the car.
Reporters were told yesterday that Mrs. Battistella worked as a stripper at the Silver Slipper at 815 13th Street NW in 1973 under the name Fanne Foxe. She was billed as the "Argentine Firecracker."
However, these sources said, she stopped dancing after Mills met her there and that then she and the congressman became frequent companions at the Silver Slipper.
These sources said that Mills and the woman frequently argued loudly in public, that Mills spent lavishly at the club and at one time made serious inquiries about buying a share of the business.
A Mills spokesman said "no comment" when asked to identify a photograph of Fanne Foxe. Mills himself stayed incommunicado. His spokesman would not amplify his statement.
Mills, after the Tidal Basin incident was revealed, denied, through Oscar Eugene (Gene) Goss, and his administrative assistant, that he had been present. After police Wednesday stated that Mills was there and was intoxicated and bleeding, he issued a "no comment" statement through Goss.
Yesterday, however, Mills said that Goss had misunderstood him when the aide announced that Mills was not involved.
Mills said when Goss "related the report of the incident to me as it was quoted to him by members of the press, because of the manner in which it was phrased I told him that it was an inaccurate report. He (Goss) mistook this to mean that I was not involved resulting in the previous statement issued in my name."
Goss issued a separate statement, stating it "is obvious" that he misunderstood Mills and added he "deeply" regrets "any embarrassment that it may have caused him and his family and any inconvenience it has caused others."
Goss said Mills and his wife spent yesterday in their Crystal Towers apartment, 1600 S. Eads St., Arlington.
Mills, in his statement said he decided to issue an explanation because of "the unprecedented publicity given as unfortunate incident in which I was involved this week."
He said he and his wife moved to Crystal Towers last year. "Our new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eduardo Battistella, offered us every assistance during the moving ordeal and since that time our families have grown to become close friends," Mills said. Mills moved from another address in Arlington.
He said that Mrs. Sanchez has been the house guest of the Battistellas for "several weeks" and that "Polly (Mrs. Mills) and I had planned to host a small bon voyage party for her" before her return to Argentina.
"Polly’s broken foot," Mills said, "prevented our entertaining at home and she insisted I take our friends to a public place we had frequented before. This I did. We then visited another place and after a few refreshments Mrs. Battistella became ill and I enlisted the help of others in our group to assist me in seeing her safely home." The statement did not name the two places.
Mills said the "man I asked to drive was unfamiliar with my car and among other things in the glare of the lighted streets neglected to turn on the headlamps.
"As we proceeded home," Mills said, "Mrs. Battistella attempted to leave the car and I attempted to prevent it. In the ensuing struggle her elbow hit my glasses and broke them resulting in a number of small cuts around my nose. About this time, the car was stopped by the Park Service and Mrs. Battistella was able to open the door and leave the car. The next thing I knew she was in the water. After she was safely rescued and declared out of danger, one of the park rangers took me home.
"Of course," Mills said, "I am embarrassed and humiliated by the entire turn of events, and I want to apologize for the discomfort my involvement caused all of the well-wishers who have expressed their genuine concern for my family, especially Polly, who is blaming herself for not accompanying us that night even with her broken foot."
Mills, in his statement did not mention whether Eduardo Battistella was with his group either at the public places or in the car. According to police, nobody in the car was identified as Eduardo Battistella and reporters have not been able to locate him.
Mills also did not specifically identify the other occupants of his car, except for himself and Mrs. Battistella. Police said Mrs. Sanchez was in the car along with Liliane M. Kassar, 27, of 1100 22nd St. N.W., and Albert G. Gapacini, 39, who was the driver, according to police. Mills made no mention of Gapacini, who gave his address as Crystal Towers, or of Miss Kassar. Crystal Towers employees had no record of a Gapacini. A Miss Kassar, a native of Egypt, is employed as a World Bank secretary and denies any knowledge of the incident.
Mills also did not explain the two black eyes that Mrs. Battistella had, according to sources at St. Elizabeths Hospital where she was taken after her rescue from the Tidal Basin. Hospital sources also said that Mrs. Battistella gave her occupation as a stripper, another point that Mills did not mention.
Although police described Mrs. Battistella’s leap into the Tidal Basin as a suicide attempt, hospital officials said the physicians who examined her did not think it was a "genuine" suicide attempt. Mrs. Battistella has refused to comment.
Mills did not deny that he and Mrs. Battistella were intoxicated and that other occupants of the car had been drinking. Except for mentioning that they had a "few refreshments" Mills did not indicate how much they had to drink.
A Washington dancing teacher, Bill Garney, and two strippers who work at the Silver Slipper night club on 13th Street NW, said yesterday that Mrs. Battistella worked as a stripper at the Silver Slipper, and other clubs here under the stage name of Fanne Foxe.
Garney said he gave Mrs. Battistella several ballet lessons at least three years ago at his Academy of Theatrical Arts at 1747 Connecticut Ave. NW, and that she seemed to be "a very serious student."
In separate interviews yesterday, the two strippers said Mrs. Battistella had been Mills’ regular companion since July 1973, and that they frequently visited the Silver Slipper together.
In a newspaper advertisement for the Silver Slipper published July 5, 1973, Fanne Foxe was pictured as the featured performer and referred to as "the Argentine firecracker." Federal records show Mrs. Battistella immigrated to the United States from Argentina in 1965.
The two Silver Slipper strippers interviewed by The Post asked that their names not be used because they said they have been threatened with losing their jobs if they talk to reporters.
Both sources said Mills has spent as much as $1,700 in one night at the Silver Slipper, buying magnum bottles of champagne for his companions. They said he paid his bills there in cash.
According to the two dancers, Mills came to the Silver Slipper in July 1973, when Mrs. Battistella was the featured performer. She stopped performing soon after that, they said.
In August 1973, Mills moved into his present apartment in Crystal Towers, where Mrs. Battistella already lived.
One of the Silver Slipper strippers estimated that Mills and Mrs. Battistella have visited the club "every two or three weeks." The other said they go "once or twice a week." Mills and Mrs. Battistella were last seen there about a week and a half ago, both strippers said.
On several occasions Mills and Mrs. Battistella came to the Silver Slipper with a number of other people, including Mrs. Mills, the two strippers said.
They also said that Mills and Mrs. Battistella frequently quarreled loudly with each other at the Silver Slipper and elsewhere in public. The strippers said they were told that Mills and Mrs. Battistella had quarreled last Sunday evening at the Junkanoo restaurant, where George Bertran, the restaurant’s manager, has said that Mills, Mrs. Battistella and five other people dined until 9 p.m. Sunday, five hours before the Mills car was stopped near the Tidal Basin by U.S. Park Police.
The stripper said that Mills parked his car right outside the door of the Silver Slipper and readily told other customer that he was Wilbur Mills.
The Silver Slipper’s manager, Arthur August denied, however, that he had ever seen Mills at his night club. He said he does not know Mrs. Battistella, but added that he rarely knows the real names of strippers who work for him.
Both strippers said Mills talked at one time of buying the Silver Slipper but decided not to after investigating the club’s record. The Silver Slipper’s liquor license has been suspended twice since 1972 for infractions ranging from employees asking customers to buy them drinks to solicitation for prostitution.
The Silver Slipper is wedged between an adult bookstore and an adult movie house on 13th Street NW. Photos of scantily clad women in provocative poses are pasted in its window with the legend "An extravaganza of beautiful, curvaceous girls." The entertainment, a continuous procession of costumed women who strip to a single small patch, is interspersed with singing and comedy routines.
The club, which charges a $5.80 minimum per person, attracts a largely white, 90 percent male crowd. Unescorted women are not allowed. Tourists, conventioneers and tie-and-coated businessmen are regular customers, according to manager Arthur August.
The Silver Slipper is under the same ownership as its next-door-neighbor, The Scene Theatre, a bar that shows continuous erotic movies.
According to D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control records the Silver Slipper’s liquor license has been suspended twice since 1972, once for 60 days, later reduced to 30, and once for five days.
Another citation, charging that employees asked customers to buy them drinks, is pending a hearing on Oct. 23.
In ordering the 60-day suspension in 1973, the ABC Board said the Slipper’s "method of operation is such as to harbor and encourage mischievous and illegal conduct." The owners, the board said, had allowed the premises "to be used for invitation, enticement and persuasion of persons . . . to engage in prostitution and other immoral and lewd acts."
The Silver Slipper most recently had its liquor license suspended from Sept. 1 to Sept. 6, after two plainclothes policemen testified they were asked by employees Mary Dell Bryant, also known as Sterling, and Katherine Busillo, also known as Natasha, to buy them drinks.
The 30-day suspension, in effect from Aug. 14 to Sept. 13, 1973, was imposed after a full hearing was held by the ABC board on May 15 of that year. According to a 10-page opinion by the board, employees asked plain-clothesmen to buy them drinks and offered to perform sexual acts for a price.
The early Monday morning incident came as a shock to many House members who have never seen Mills take a drink. At one time during his career, it was said he went home every night to study the Internal Revenue Code.
"I’ve never seen him drink," said Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.) a member of the Ways and Means Committee. Gibbons says Mills is respected because of his expertise in tax and tariff matters and "because God gave him a high degree of intelligence."
Mills has gained a reputation as one of the most powerful men in Congress through the manner in which he has conducted himself as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee that drafts all tax and tariff bills.
However, associates say privately that his power and to a lesser degree his prestige began to slip after his brief, unsuccessful effort to obtain the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. This was followed by back problems that led to surgery from which he seemed to be recovered fully only recently.
During the period when Mills was sick and hospitalized, his Committee members discovered that they could act on legislation without Mills to guide them.
Mills’ clout with his Committee stems from several factors. One is the control he has over his Committee’s professional staff. He signs their payroll slips and they are loyal to him. He understands taxes and tariffs probably better than any other member of the Committee and he is personable.
Gibbons said Mills "has exhibited to me skillful use of power I’ve never seen before. He’s sort of unflappable. He doesn’t lose his cool. He’s very much a gentleman."
Mills also has clout with House Democrats because he is chairman of a party committee that decides what legislative committees they will sit on. This Democratic committee on committees is composed only of the Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee.
Speaker of the House Carl Albert (D-Okla.) yesterday described Mills as an "outstanding member of the House" and added that "I wouldn’t want to comment on anybody’s personal life.
"The loss of Wilbur Mills would be a great loss to the House of Representatives," he said. Mills’ seat in the House is under challenge by a Republican for the first time in years.
House Majority Leader Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill (D-Mass.) said it "is hard for me to believe that Wilbur would be involved in anything of that nature; maybe he was just the victim of circumstances."
Mills, in his statement, said he intends to be in his Capitol Hill office today. He said that when Congress recesses, he and his wife will return to Arkansas "to devote our attention to the reelection campaign."
Mills also commended the "Park Service for their alertness and to thank them for the courtesies extended to me and my friends."
He added that "it cannot go unnoticed that the TV cameraman who happened to be on the scene at the precise moment to record this unfortunate occasion deserves the highest award for his swiftness and perceptiveness."
In the last few days, Rep. Al Ullman (D-Ore.) has been acting as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Yesterday he said that he doesn’t think Mills would lose clout in the House if he "properly explains" the incident.
Contributing to this account were Staff Writers E.J. Bachinski, Elizabeth Becker, Kenneth Bredemier, Alfred E. Lewis, Judy Luce Mann, Eugene L. Meyer, Megan Rosenfeld and Ron Shaffer.
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