By Peter Baker
Kathleen E. Willey, a former White House aide who once considered herself "good friends" with President Clinton, broke her long public silence in an interview broadcast last night and accused the president of lying under oath when he denied making a sexual advance to her near the Oval Office four years ago.
In a soft and halting voice, Willey recounted to a national television audience that she met with Clinton to seek a paid job in November 1993 only to have him kiss and grope her against her will. The president, she said, had "taken advantage of" her emotional distress at a time when her family faced financial ruin and her husband was missing.
"It was kind of like I was watching it in slow motion and thinking surely this is not happening," she recalled in an interview taped in Richmond on Thursday and broadcast last night on CBS's "60 Minutes." "I thought, 'Well, maybe I ought to just give him a good slap across the face.' And then I thought, 'Well, I don't think you can slap the president of the United States like that.' And, and I just decided it was just time to get out of there."
She decided to air her allegations publicly, she said, because of what she called the dishonesty surrounding her. "I just think that it's time to tell this story," she said. "Too many lies are being told. Too many lives are being ruined. And I think it's time for the truth to come out." Asked if Clinton had committed perjury by denying any sexual contact with her during a deposition in the Paula Jones case, Willey said, "Yes."
During that deposition, which the president gave on Jan. 17, Clinton remembered meeting with Willey but said it involved no sexual overtones. "I emphatically deny it," he testified. "It did not happen." His lawyer has tried to undercut Willey by obtaining an affidavit from a friend who said Willey asked her to lie about what she knew of the incident.
In some ways, Willey could be a more troublesome witness for the president than the other women claiming sexual encounters. What she alleged was not a consensual relationship, as have Gennifer Flowers and Dolly Kyle Browning. A longtime Democrat, she cannot be dismissed as part of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," as was Paula Jones, who has aligned herself with conservatives in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton. And because Willey was so unwilling to come forward for so long, she has not given the impression of someone eager to capitalize on her accusation.
Perhaps most worrisome to the White House, Willey last week testified before a grand jury as a cooperating witness in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into whether Clinton or his allies engaged in obstruction of justice.
"The president is absolutely bewildered," said Robert S. Bennett, his chief attorney in the Jones case. "Because you are quite right, you can't fairly characterize her as a Clinton hater." But he added cryptically and without elaboration on ABC's "This Week" that "there's substantial material of what she has said which is under seal which has not been released . . . which seriously undercuts her claims."
The basic elements of Willey's account last night matched her Jan. 11 sworn testimony in the Jones case, which was released publicly for the first time Friday. However, unlike that deposition just two months ago, when she appeared extremely reluctant to tell her story, Willey gave a far more descriptive narration that depicted the president as a reckless molester who felt her breasts and placed her hand on his genitals. And unlike the deposition transcript, last night's interview was broadcast to millions of viewers across the country.
Willey said prominent Democratic fund-raiser Nathan Landow talked with her "extensively" about her testimony, but declined to elaborate, citing Starr's investigation, which is looking into whether she was illegally pressured to change her story. Landow has denied trying to influence her deposition.
For the first time, Willey also alleged that Clinton tried to get her to come meet him privately once during the 1992 presidential campaign and promised he would get rid of his Secret Service guards if she did. He had sent someone to get her telephone number at a Richmond airport rally and later called from Williamsburg, where he was suffering from a hoarse voice. Willey said she declined to visit him because "my instincts told me he wasn't interested in chicken soup."
Willey's account of her Oval Office encounter with Clinton drew a strong reaction from some feminist leaders, who until now generally had not been harshly critical of the president for any alleged sexual indiscretions with Monica S. Lewinsky or others.
"This is not just sexual harassment. If it's true, it's sexual assault," Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said on CNN's "Late Edition." "He put his hand on her breast, he put her hand on his erection. That is a pretty serious charge if true and it is a very big problem." On the same show, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said that if Willey is telling the truth, "then I have to tell you, I think this presidency would be over."
Willey, 51, was one of Clinton's earliest active supporters in Virginia when he first ran for president. She liked "his sincerity," she recalled, and the fact that they were about the same age. She led a life of affluence and social prominence in Richmond, where her husband, Edward E. Willey Jr., was a real estate lawyer and the namesake son of one of the most influential legislators in the Virginia General Assembly.
By Nov. 29, 1993, the day she met with Clinton, however, her husband was mired in deep legal and financial troubles that he had just confessed to his wife. While she was at the White House that day volunteering in the social office, she said, she was worried because she could not locate her husband. Unbeknownst to her, Edward Willey that very afternoon drove into a wooded area and shot himself in the head. His body was found the next day.
Needing money, Willey had gone to see the president about getting a paid job. As she described it, Clinton offered her coffee and escorted her down a hallway that leads to a small pantry, where, she said, there was a steward.
After pouring her coffee in a Starbucks cup, Clinton led her back down the hall and invited her into his private study, where they talked, she said.
"I didn't give him all the details," Willey said. "I just told him that my husband was in financial difficulty and that things were at a crisis point, and that my volunteer days were over, that I needed a regular paying job and could he help me."
Clinton seemed sympathetic. "He said he would do everything that he could to help," she recalled. Then they turned back into the hallway leading to the Oval Office. "Right as we got to the door, he stopped and he gave me a big hug and said that he was very sorry that this was happening to me."
To this point, Clinton has concurred with her account. In his deposition, he recalled giving her a hug and perhaps kissing her forehead in an effort to console her but insisted "there was nothing sexual about it."
Willey said she did not think so at first either, because Clinton always hugged her whenever they saw each other. But then, she said, he took the coffee cup from her hand and put it on a bookshelf.
"This hug lasted a little longer than I thought necessary, but at the same time, I mean, I was not concerned about it," she said. At this point in her interview with Ed Bradley, Willey began stammering. "And then he, then he, then he kissed me on, on my mouth and, and pulled me closer to him. And I remember thinking, I just remember thinking, 'What in the world is he doing?' . . . And I, I pushed back away from him and he, he, he, he, he's a big man. And he, he had his arms, they were tight around me and he, he touched me."
Asked how he touched her, Willey said, "He touched my breasts with his hand and I, I, I, I was, I, I was just startled."
Then, she said, Clinton whispered in her ears, "I've wanted to do this ever since I laid eyes on you." She said she asked him whether he wasn't afraid someone would walk in but he said no. "Then he took my hand and he, and he put it on him," she said. "And that's when I pushed away from him and decided it was time to get out of there."
Asked where he placed her hand, she said, "On his genitals." Asked whether the president was "aroused," she replied, "Uh-huh."
Willey said she was stunned and angry about the encounter, particularly because there was a steward nearby and Secret Service agents and White House aides just outside the Oval Office. "I could just not believe what had happened in that office," she said. "I could not believe the recklessness of that act."
She wondered whether she had done anything to encourage Clinton's behavior. "I've gone over this many times did I send the wrong signal?" she said. "The only signal I was sending that day is that I was very distraught."
But she did not go public with her story, she said, because there was nothing to be gained by doing so. "I was embarrassed for the president's behavior," she said. "And I saw no benefit whatsoever in filing a complaint. I mean, who do you file a complaint with, anyway, when it's the president? Where do you go?"
Willey's story first emerged in public last summer after Jones's lawyers learned about her and tipped off Newsweek magazine. Linda R. Tripp, who worked at the White House with Willey and would later turn over to Starr secret tape recordings of her own conversations with Lewinsky, told the magazine of running into Willey the day of the incident.
Willey told her about a sexual encounter but seemed "joyful" about it, Tripp said.
In last night's interview, Willey brushed off that characterization, saying Tripp may have simply misinterpreted her mood. In tense situations, Willey said, she would "fall back on my sense of humor. I think when I said, 'You are not going to believe this one,' maybe she took that as joyful."
Tripp and Willey had been friends. But after her meeting with the president, Willey was given a part-time paid position in the White House counsel's office, where Tripp also worked, while Tripp eventually was transferred to the Pentagon against her will. As Willey recalled it, Tripp confronted her and contended that Willey was staying because Clinton wanted her there while Tripp was being exiled because she knew what happened.
"She was very angry. Very upset. Very bitter," Willey said. "And she ended the conversation by saying, 'I'm going to get you and . . . everyone else in this place before this is all over.' "
Willey brushed off another conflicting account from her friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, who originally corroborated to Newsweek being told of the episode by Willey the same night.
Steele later recanted and has said in a sworn statement that Willey asked her to lie to reporter Michael Isikoff about when and what she was told.
Willey last night said she believes Steele "was pressured" to change her story. "The White House wanted to try to discredit me," Willey said, "and they found a pawn in her."
To date, the White House has offered no alternative theory about why Willey would make the claim. During his deposition in the Jones case, Clinton said he did not know why. "She was in a difficult condition," he said. "But I have no idea why she said what she did or whether she now believes that actually happened. She's been through a terrible, terrible time in her life and I have nothing else to say. I don't want to speculate."
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