How Larry Flynt Changed the Picture
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 1999; Page C1
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. The phones began to ring hours before dawn.
Larry Flynt's pornographic publishing empire was empty on that Sunday morning, Oct. 4, 1998, when calls started coming in, every line beeping in the darkened suites. It wasn't until he went to work Monday that Hustler editor Allan MacDonell had any idea of what Flynt had wrought.
The callers MacDonell estimates there were more than 2,000 were responding to a full-page ad in The Washington Post announcing "a cash offer of up to one million dollars" to anyone who had an adulterous sexual encounter with a current member of Congress or a high-ranking government official, and could prove it. The ad included a toll-free number.
"When we came in Monday morning," MacDonell said, "every voice mail that the calls were routed to was full, and every time we took down the numbers and deleted the messages, the system would immediately fill up again."
One unexpected force that has emerged in the long national trauma now culminating in an impeachment trial of President Clinton is the appearance of Larry Flynt, overlord of porn, in the role of avenging angel. Threatening to unmask hypocrites, he has sent shivers down the spines of some members of Congress and played a role in the resignation of House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), who admitted having broken his marriage vows before Flynt had published a word about him.
Flynt has said that within the coming days, he will out one or two members of Congress, or others closely associated with the impeachment proceedings, who had sex outside of wedlock. The publisher has scheduled "an invitation only" press conference in his office tonight.
Interviewed in his office this week, MacDonell the editor of Hustler and point man in the hunt for adulterers was more specific: Six affairs, he said, are "signed, sealed and delivered, with affidavits and corroborating evidence" and another six are in the works. Not every target is a man, he added, and the hit list includes "people who go on TV and keep attacking Clinton."
Pundits? he is asked. "Not unlike pundits," he answers.
(MacDonell, who edits three other sex magazines in addition to Hustler, managed to squeeze in the adultery matter around his normal duties. So, too, with press interviews. Before he sits down with a reporter, he first needs to review some slides on a light table. As he examines the photos through his magnifying loupe, he mutters, "No penetration, I keep telling you this." His assistant takes the slides and scuttles away.)
Of the calls and e-mails to Hustler, MacDonell reports, the majority were simply applauding the magazine's efforts to expose what Flynt sees as sexual hypocrites. A smaller number, MacDonell says, "were people calling us scum and telling us to stay in the gutter."
But at least 250 claimed knowledge of sexual affairs. These were the calls that were returned.
MacDonell assigned two Hustler editors to make the initial contacts. Many of the callers used code names, and were vague in their recorded messages. But the editors insisted on specifics: Who is the target, and who is the "principal" the partner and when and where and what kind was the sex? And most important, MacDonell says, what evidence did the callers have or know of: the snapshots, home videos, taped phone conversations and answering machine messages, dinner and drink receipts, phone bills, witnesses, divorce papers, angry spouses.
Even then, MacDonell says, most of the calls claiming direct knowledge of affairs did not bear fruit. Many involved officials too distant from the proceedings ("some mayor or somebody"), or too long ago to be relevant, or untraceable. There were also a number of bizarre callers, "the nutty ones, who go off into left field, and start talking about transmitters implanted in their brains."
As for the remainder, MacDonell grabs a fistful of papers from the initial debriefings. He reads, redacting as he goes:
"Very high-up guy, Republican. Adultery 10 years with same woman. Plenty of sleazy facts. As high as you can get in Republican Party."
"Had affair with secretary. Secretary now has position at such and such a department."
"So-and-so rented an apartment with campaign funds, entertained women there. ..."
From the 250, MacDonell and Flynt passed along about 30 to their private investigation firm based in the Washington area; "an established firm," he says, "20 years in the business, filled with former government workers." Flynt had said earlier they are former FBI and CIA agents.
At first blush, MacDonell says, the gumshoes told them that the cases did not seem too solid. One of the reports initially dismissed involved the allegations against Livingston. "I was told that Livingston looked like a setup," MacDonell says, because the first lead on him came in from a Louisiana Republican. MacDonell says that Flynt was always aware of the fact that certain leads could be bogus, either as a scam to get at the Hustler money or to discredit either Flynt or the target.
The Livingston matter, however, was pursued by Hustler's investigators, both in Washington and Louisiana, according to MacDonell, who would not say what, if anything, was found about the congressman, nor whether Flynt planned to publish anything he might have uncovered.
As in the Livingston case, most of the leads were not from the "principals" or paramours themselves, but from people who knew of them. According to MacDonell, the investigators then tracked down the principals. Some wanted nothing to do with the Hustler investigation. But others were persuaded to cooperate, and the private eyes met them face to face, first to check out their stories and then to work out the financial arrangements.
MacDonell says he is sure that the targets now know or suspect they are being investigated. In one case, however, he cackles and says that a target keeps condemning Clinton, even though he knows he is soon to be unmasked. "There's this one guy, I don't see how he can keep posturing the way he is. He's like a sociopath. I mean, he's got to know."
In addition, the Flynt organization has received some correspondence from targets or their representatives warning them off the allegations, and making veiled threats about litigation. But litigation is not a new threat to Flynt, who employs some of the toughest legal talent in the First Amendment field and has won most of his legal battles.
None of the principals got the million dollars, but some were paid in "the six figures," MacDonell says. The price depended on how good the evidence was and how important a role the target is playing in the impeachment proceedings.
In fact, MacDonell says, as events overtook the Flynt investigation, revelations of past indiscretions among House members who did not play a major role in the impeachment proceedings seemed less interesting, and therefore less valuable. Meaning: To get the big money, there had to be a big fish on the hook.
MacDonell finally spoke with some of the principals himself, he says, but mostly to answer questions about how their stories would be presented and how much they would be paid. "One of the first hurdles to get over was the fact that they were not going to get a million dollars," MacDonell says.
In recent days, he says, most of the talks have been "attorney to attorney," between Hustler's counsel and the alleged paramours' lawyers. Some of the women, MacDonell notes, are talking about appearing on TV and selling their stories. Some want to remain anonymous.
In the end, of course, this is about money for Flynt, too. He plans to publish a quickie "Flynt Report" in a magazine format that details the charges, just as he did quickie memorial volumes for Princess Diana and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. He has said he will spend up to $4 million on the investigation, a cost he hopes to recoup with the "Flynt Report," even though it will have no nudes.
"This is a non-adult book," MacDonell says. And will the descriptions of the sexual affairs be graphic? "According to Hustler standards, no," MacDonell says. "According to the Catholic League, yes."
But the pornographer adds this: Most of the principals interviewed refused to go into the kinds of detail contained in the Starr Report. There will be general descriptions of the sexual liaisons, he promises. But it may not be as prurient as the report from the independent counsel.
Larry Flynt, MacDonell says, has his standards.
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