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Steele Defense Rests, Denouncing Starr

Julie Hiatt Steele Julie Hiatt Steele (Susan Biddle — The Washington Post)

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  • Coverage of the Steele Trial

  • Steele's Feb. 1998 Affidavit

  • Key Player: Kathleen Willey

  • By Leef Smith and Patricia Davis
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, May 7, 1999; Page A22

    Lawyers for Julie Hiatt Steele, the only person indicted in the White House sex scandal, abruptly rested their case yesterday without calling Steele or any other witnesses and asked the federal court jury to judge the actions of someone not on trial: Kenneth W. Starr.

    Steele had been expected to take the stand to defend herself on charges of obstruction of justice and making false statements in connection with the case of her longtime friend and confidante, Kathleen E. Willey, who alleges that President Clinton groped her outside the Oval Office in 1993.

    But yesterday, a day after Willey -- the key prosecution witness -- wrapped up about six hours of testimony and cross-examination, the defense rested.

    Steele's attorney, in summing up her case before the jury, denounced Starr, the independent counsel, for prosecuting the Richmond mother of three, saying her client got hit by the "runaway train" that his investigation of Clinton has become.

    Of the major players in the Monica S. Lewinsky case, "no one was indicted," Nancy Luque said. "Not Monica. Not Linda [Tripp], not the president and not Kathleen Willey. Only my client. Why?"

    She went on to criticize Starr for placing so much stock in Willey, who lied to his investigators even after they gave her immunity from prosecution. "It was the independent counsel's Mr. Starr who betrayed the rule of law," Luque told the jury. "Only you can stop this."

    After three days of testimony by prosecution witnesses, the six-man, six-woman panel deliberated for 3 1/2 hours before U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton sent the jurors home for the night. They were to resume this morning.

    The jurors are being asked to untangle a web of conflicting testimony and depositions with one question at its center: When did Willey tell Steele about her alleged White House encounter?

    Steele contends she first heard about it in 1997, when Willey asked her to corroborate her story to a Newsweek reporter. Steele did so, but later recanted and said Willey had asked her to lie to the reporter. But prosecutors say that it is Steele who is lying and that Willey told her about the incident the day it allegedly happened -- Nov. 29, 1993.

    If convicted of lying to two federal grand juries and federal agents, Steele could be sentenced to as many as 35 years in prison.

    As they sift through stacks of depositions taken in both the Paula Jones civil lawsuit and Steele's grand jury appearances, jurors have been directed by the prosecution to pay close attention to three of Steele's former friends, who testified that Steele told them about Willey's alleged encounter before 1997.

    Willey said she told Steele on as many as 20 occasions about the president's alleged unwanted sexual advance. At one point, Willey testified, Steele tried to persuade her to sell her story to a tabloid, claiming they could make a lot of money.

    Once Steele realized her friend wouldn't cooperate, prosecutors said, she went forward on her own, selling a photograph of Willey and the president to the National Enquirer -- which paid her $7,000 and flew her to Florida for an all-expenses-paid vacation. She later sold the photo to Time and CNN.

    "She was willing to make money off her friend," prosecutor Stephen Binhak said during closing arguments. "Selling the story is what defendant Steele wanted all along."

    Steele's attorney denounced the prosecution's theory, saying it "defies logic."

    "How is it that someone who admits to a reporter that they lied and don't know the truth has a marketable story?" Luque, referring to Willey, asked the jury. "It doesn't make sense," she said, adding that phone records show Willey made phone calls to book publishers after talking to a Newsweek reporter.

    Willey's credibility appeared to suffer during cross-examination. Over and over, Willey was forced to acknowledge discrepancies between sworn statements she gave to lawyers representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton and comments she made later to investigators working with Starr.

    Further damaging to her claims was Willey's admission to the jury that she was granted a second immunity deal from Starr's office after she admitted lying about the details of a relationship she had with a younger man. Willey admitted that she falsely told her then-boyfriend she was pregnant because he had humiliated her.

    Willey also acknowledged telling a grand jury that Steele, a noticeably petite woman, was anorexic, and she told investigators that there could be legal problems with the adoption of Steele's son. She admitted to having an affair with a married man and asking Steele to cover for her when she left a family funeral to visit him in Philadelphia. And she acknowledged trying to avoid paying off the $274,000 her husband stole from clients. Edward E. Willey, a lawyer, killed himself over his financial troubles on the same day as the alleged encounter with Clinton.

    Just when it looked like Willey could exit the witness stand, she was questioned about and admitted to confronting Steele in a Richmond supermarket the day before Easter and called her a obscenity.

    But legal analysts say it is Starr, not Willey, who may have the most to lose if the charges against Steele don't stick.

    "If he loses this one, it's a big slap in the face to him," said Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "It means either he goes after cases that fit some agenda of his, even when he doesn't have good evidence, or . . . . [the jury is] fed up with Starr's tactics."

    If Starr's office wins a conviction, however, that could be taken as meaning "that Starr has something there on Clinton because it is a finding really in favor of Kathleen Willey." But, Rothstein added, "you could still question the expenditure of resources on such a small case."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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