Federal Trial Is a Starr Attraction
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 1999; Page B1
Julie Hiatt Steele had one errand to do before picking up her son at soccer practice. The team needed supplies, and Steele was crouched on the floor of the supermarket, looking for paper towels, when she realized Kathleen Willey was behind her.
Once, such an accidental meeting would have been a happy coincidence of life in suburban Richmond. The two women -- both born in 1946, one divorced, the other widowed -- had known each other for years. But their on-again, off-again friendship had totally frayed a few months earlier when they suddenly became antagonists in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of the White House sex scandal.
The awkward moment in the supermarket occurred in the fall of 1997. In Steele's version, Willey was livid and let loose a series of angry comments while Steele stood there startled. "I couldn't speak," she said.
She will have that opportunity this week when her break with her former friend is aired before a federal jury in Alexandria. Steele, 52, is accused of obstruction of justice and making false statements in a case that has become an unlikely coda to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.
Steele, a single mother who describes herself as apolitical, is the only person indicted by Starr in connection with the case.
Jurors will be asked to decide, in effect, which woman -- Steele or Willey -- is lying about conversations the two had regarding President Clinton.
The stakes for Starr's office go far beyond the immediate facts. If prosecutors can't make the charges stick against a minor figure in the scandal, some legal analysts say, it could reinforce critics' arguments that Starr is motivated more by zealotry than justice.
Starr "is willing to use or abuse any man, woman or child who gets in the way of his prosecution of Clinton," Steele said.
The crux of the case: Willey told Starr's prosecutors -- and later, a national television audience -- that she was groped by the president in the Oval Office in November 1993 (a charge Clinton denies). She said she told Steele about it the day it happened. But Steele says she first heard about it four years later when Willey asked her to lie and corroborate Willey's version to a Newsweek reporter.
Steele sticks by the version she gave to federal agents and two grand juries -- that she did lie at first as a favor to Willey but that she later recanted when she realized the magazine was going to print the story and name her.
That testimony is the basis for Starr's charges. In its indictment, Starr's office accuses Steele of giving false testimony to grand juries in Washington and Alexandria and of trying to influence the testimony of two friends to whom she allegedly related details of Willey's Oval Office visit.
Prosecutors declined to comment last week, as did Willey through her attorneys. But in a March 1998 "60 Minutes" interview, Willey said she believed Steele "was pressured" to recant. "The White House wanted to try to discredit me," Willey said, "and they found a pawn in her."
Trying to Explain
Sitting at her kitchen table in Midlothian, Va., one evening last week, Steele struggled to explain why she initially lied for Willey about such a volatile matter as alleged sexual harassment by the president of the United States.
The petite mother of two grown daughters and an 8-year-old son described herself as "non-confrontational" and said she felt bullied. She didn't follow politics -- didn't even vote in the last national election -- and failed to grasp the importance of what she had agreed to do, she said. She also said she believed the Newsweek interview was off the record.
"Washington wasn't real to me," Steele said, her hand brushing the edge of her oversized white knit shirt, a shirt she said once belonged to Willey. "This was Kathy's lie, and it was about Kathy. Who thought it would get legs and grow like that?"
If convicted, Steele could face up to 35 years in prison. Since she told her side of events two years ago, she said, she lost two sales and marketing jobs; the adoption of her Romanian-born son was questioned by federal prosecutors; and she has been living on credit cards and home equity loans. She dismisses as absurd the suggestion that she gained something from recanting her story.
"Could someone tell me what the benefit has been, because I don't see it," she said. "It's turned my life upside down, hurt my family and me."
Steele said she never imagined that her life, which once revolved around school fund-raisers and activities with her son, could go so astray. But those who know her say that, first impressions aside, she is in many ways an unconventional woman.
After raising her two daughters, Steele, until then a textbook mom, divorced her husband and later had a child. The infant died shortly after birth. Five months later, a newspaper article about orphaned children in Romania prompted Steele to hop on a plane to Bucharest, hire a translator and drive village to village until she found a baby to adopt.
She first saw Adam when he was 10 weeks old. His grandparents dressed him and handed him over after learning that an American was looking to adopt. They told Steele the baby's mother already had a child and couldn't afford another. Ecstatic, she immediately began adoption proceedings.
Five days later, the baby's mother, alarmed by stories that Americans eat their children, demanded the return of her infant. Steele was devastated but complied. But then the next week, the child's mother called and begged Steele to take the baby to America. Done.
Years later, the issue of Adam's adoption would be raised by Starr's prosecutors. And Steele, wanting to send her hyperactive son to a private school, got herself even deeper in the White House drama when she sought out the National Enquirer and sold the tabloid a photograph of Willey with the president for $9,000.
A Friendship Unravels
Steele had her first two children with her childhood sweetheart, whom she married when she was 18. They later moved to Richmond. After the two girls reached their teens, Steele's husband left. They divorced in 1984.
She dated other men. One relationship turned serious but didn't work out. Weeks later, she discovered she was pregnant. Though unplanned, the pregnancy brought her joy, she said, and is even today preserved in snapshots she keeps in a baby album. In one picture, Steele stands sideways, smiling brightly, pulling her denim dress tight to reveal her enlarged form.
Ben was born weeks later. Doctors knew as soon as they cut the umbilical cord that he was sick, and he died four days later, cradled in his mother's arms. In a letter she wrote to herself shortly afterward, Steele compared the experience to "crawling through fire."
During that time, she said, she felt Willey slighted her by not providing her with support.
The women met in 1978 when Steele and her husband almost bought the Willeys' home. Willey had been the dominant partner in their 20-year friendship, according to Steele's family. "It seemed like Kathy had some kind of hold over her," said Steele's sister, Elizabeth Maglio.
Willey and her husband, Edward E. Willey Jr., a real estate lawyer whose father had been one of Virginia's most powerful legislators, were among Richmond's elite. For years, Kathleen Willey volunteered in Democratic election campaigns. But in 1993, the family's finances crumbled. Edward Willey, deeply in debt, had allegedly embezzled $274,000 from two clients. The day after Thanksgiving, he walked into the woods and committed suicide -- the same day, in fact, that Kathleen Willey was meeting with the president in the Oval Office.
Edward Willey's body was found the next morning.
Steele, according to sources close to the case, has said that when Kathleen Willey asked her to corroborate her story to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff in March 1997, it wasn't the first time Steele lied for her. Sources say Steele told the FBI that Willey falsely claimed to be pregnant in 1995 to punish her boyfriend for a perceived slight. Later, according to Steele's statement, Willey asked Steele to tell the man that Willey had suffered a miscarriage, the sources said.
Last month, Steele took the unusual step of testifying in Arkansas at the trial of Susan McDougal, a former partner with the Clintons in the failed Whitewater development. McDougal, too, was charged with obstruction of justice for refusing to answer questions before a grand jury.
Steele stepped forward in an attempt to bolster McDougal's claim that Starr's prosecutors were bent on obtaining testimony damaging to Clinton. McDougal was found not guilty of obstruction; jurors deadlocked on two counts of criminal contempt.
"It was very convincing," juror Becky Boeckmann, 51, said of Steele's testimony. "I felt like she was telling the truth.'
Another juror, Angela Smith, 31, said she believed much of what Steele said but didn't buy the notion that prosecutors were after something other than the truth.
"It's somewhat inconsistent to post yourself as a beacon of truth against the [office of the independent counsel] if you were so easily persuaded to lie in the first place," Smith said. "But I didn't doubt a lot of what she said. . . . I did feel that she had been put through the wringer."
McDougal's attorney contended that prosecutors aggressively pursued Steele even after she passed a lie-detector test and Willey failed one. Steele's attorneys previously had claimed that one of Starr's witnesses had failed a polygraph but did not elaborate, citing a court-imposed gag order.
One irony of the trial that begins today is that Linda W. Tripp, Starr's key witness against Clinton, may be called now to impugn Willey's credibility. Tripp, who knew Willey, has testified before a grand jury that Willey was not an unwilling victim of sexual harassment, but rather had flirted with Clinton on several occasions. Tripp testified that, based on Willey's reaction at the time, she concluded that the Oval Office encounter was between "consenting adults."
"For reasons that are beyond me, Ken Starr wants to believe Kathleen Willey," said Ben Hiatt, Steele's brother. "But there's no motivation for Julie to lie."
Hiatt and other relatives have expressed outrage at what they see as heavy-handed tactics by some of the Starr team. Hiatt said he and one of Steele's daughters, Liza Steele, were questioned about the circumstances of Adam's adoption. And Julie Steele testified in the Arkansas case that Liza's boyfriend was asked if he had had sex with Julie Steele.
In court papers, Steele's attorney, Nancy Luque, has accused Starr's office of prosecutorial misconduct.
The motive behind Starr's indictment is a subject of debate.
"What [Steele] did may have been an affront to Kenneth Starr's office, but is it the kind of thing the U.S. should have an interest in prosecuting?" asked Sam Buffone, a criminal defense lawyer in the District. "What's it going to look like to the public . . . a big-time perjurer or the special prosecutor's office trying to pursue its own special interest?"
Others say Starr may have good reasons to pursue the case that will come out only at trial. "It may be there really is something here that's significant and criminal," said John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University.
Since becoming a target of Starr's investigation, Steele said, she has spent a lot of time regretting her political innocence. Those ignorant of the workings of government and politics, she believes, can be especially vulnerable when caught in its machinery.
"I had no idea what was going on" in Washington, Steele said. "I will never, ever be so unaware of things around me again."
Staff writer Patricia Davis contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company