By Jeff Leen
Until the fateful afternoon of Nov. 29, 1993, Kathleen Willey hardly seemed capable of imperiling a presidency.
A Richmond lawyer's wife and daughter-in-law of a prominent Virginia politician, Willey was a former flight attendant whose life had come to revolve around her children and charity work. She also served as an unpaid volunteer in the White House Social Office and reportedly maintained a vaguely flirty relationship with President Clinton.
On that day in the Oval Office, however, Willey took her financial woes to the president and flirt turned to fire, according to an account she reportedly has given in a sworn deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.
As Willey asked for a permanent job in the White House, the president led her into his private study where he kissed her, fondled her breast and put her hand on his genitals, according to one source familiar with Willey's account of the episode. "I've always wanted to do that," she reportedly quoted Clinton as saying.
In this case, the alleged kiss turned out to be far more than just a kiss. The encounter triggered a sequence of events that led to the greatest crisis of Clinton's tenure. Outside the Oval Office, Willey bumped into Linda R. Tripp and told her Clinton had made a pass at her, Tripp later said. After Tripp gave her account of the incident to Newsweek magazine last year, Clinton's lawyer denounced her veracity. Willey declined to support Tripp's account and Tripp had no proof that the Oval Office encounter had occurred; but the next time Tripp heard allegations about Clinton's sexual escapades -- this time from Monica Lewinsky -- she made secret tape recordings. Those tapes reportedly capture Lewinsky talking of a sexual relationship with Clinton and efforts to conceal it.
How Kathleen Willey came to enter the Oval Office that Monday afternoon is a story behind the story. It is a tale of a crime that escaped legal punishment, a suicide that paid off in a $1 million life insurance policy and a struggle by Willey to rebuild her life after her husband killed himself -- on the very day she visited Clinton.
With help from her lawyers, Willey would manage to hold off a mountain of crushing debt, outwit her legal opponents and restore her family to financial security. Following her husband's death, she landed a permanent position at the White House. At government expense, she flew to Jakarta and Copenhagen, a non-scientist on scientific missions, even as her creditors struggled to bring her to the ground. She had, it appeared, emerged from a clouded past into the clear vista of a new life.
But she was plucked suddenly from this plummy place with a subpoena from Jones's lawyers and the appearance of her name in Newsweek last summer. She became the "other woman" in the burgeoning Jones case, a supermarket scandal figure gracing the National Enquirer. She also became a virtual prisoner in her own home. And then came Monica Lewinsky.
Willey, now 51, has made no public statements since last summer, and neither she nor her attorney could be reached for comment despite repeated phone calls and a visit to Willey's neighborhood.
But court records, news accounts and interviews with people in Richmond who know her and knew her husband depict a woman who endured tragedy and scandal only to become a potential witness against the president of the United States.
Edward E. Willey Sr. rose from humble beginnings as a druggist in North Richmond to become one of the most powerful Virginia legislators of recent times, a man whose name now graces a major bridge spanning the James River. As the irascible chairman of the Virginia Senate Finance Committee, Willey controlled the state's purse strings. He died in 1986, after 34 years in office, already a legend.
"Ed Willey Sr. and [House Speaker] A.L. Philpott were the two most powerful men in Virginia," said Richmond lawyer Joseph Kaestner. "They let the governor occupy the executive mansion and they did the rest."
It couldn't have been easy being Ed Willey's son. But Ed Jr. had some of his father's traits. Tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, he had the gift of oratory. Still, he eschewed a career in politics for a job on the periphery of the political game. He became a zoning and real estate lawyer.
One fellow Richmond lawyer told the Times-Dispatch newspaper that the younger Willey made his arguments for his clients "with the gestures of a Southern gentleman and the ease of a storyteller."
He also raised money for local candidates. In 1988, he was investigated by the FBI for lending money to a politician who was voting on his zoning cases, according to press accounts, but the investigation came to nothing.
"He was raising money for local candidates who he thought would owe him a favor chip down the road on a zoning case," Kaestner said this week.
Published reports have described Kathleen Willey as a former flight attendant. But Kaestner said Willey fell in love with Kathleen while she worked as a secretary at his small law firm. They married in 1971 and soon became a visible couple on the Richmond social scene.
"Ed was very prominent, he was very well-liked," Kaestner added. "He was a very attractive guy. And Kathleen was involved in a number of charitable organizations."
While her husband worked as a lawyer, Kathleen Elizabeth Willey raised the couple's son and daughter and volunteered at the American Red Cross and Meals on Wheels.
The family prospered during the explosive growth of suburban Richmond in the 1980s. Ed Willey favored fancy clothes and cars, according to acquaintances, and the Willeys lived lavishly: a ski condo in Vail, fishing vacations to Bimini, Christmas in Australia. They owned a $40,000 Range Rover and a house in Richmond's exclusive Salisbury neighborhood.
But when the real estate business went bust in the late 1980s, the Willeys fell on hard times.
"In the late 1980s and early 1990s, all that stuff came to a screeching halt," Kaestner said. "So Ed's income dried up. But there were no real lifestyle changes for them despite the fact that Ed's income really shrank."
On July 8, 1991, the IRS slapped a $360,000 lien on the Vail condo for taxes dating to 1988. Willey also was sued for back rent for his law office and failure to repay a loan, according to press accounts.
But his money problems didn't keep him from contributing to Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic Party -- he and his wife gave at least $4,000 in 1992, according to Federal Election Commission records. The Willeys also worked as Clinton fund-raisers.
The Willeys were considered good enough friends of the Democratic candidate to spend election night 1992 in Little Rock with the Clintons, celebrating the victory over President George Bush.
It was around this time that Anthony Lanasa and his sister, Josephine L. Abbott, hired Willey for a land condemnation case.
The federal government was putting up a flood wall to hold back the waters of the James River in Richmond. Lanasa and his sister owned seven acres on the south side of the James and the government was offering $60,000, Lanasa said in a telephone interview this week. They hired Willey after they noticed he got $700,000 for some clients who owned an acre on the north side of the river. They knew nothing of his financial problems or that federal tax liens against him had grown to $542,646.
"You think if I knew he owed [the] IRS $600,000, I would have ever let him handle my money?" Lanasa said. "You know he's desperate."
Willey managed to get his new clients $274,495 for their land. But he never gave them the check, Lanasa charged in a subsequent lawsuit. Willey's bank records showed that he deposited the check on June 10, 1993, according to court documents. For months, Lanasa and his sister could not even get Willey on the phone, Lanasa said.
Finally, after another lawyer retained by Lanasa threatened to report Willey to the Virginia State Bar Association, Willey agreed to a meeting on Nov. 15, 1993, in the parking lot outside the Chesterfield County Courthouse.
"At the meeting, Mr. Willey stated that he did not have the money because he had used it to pay the Internal Revenue Service, but that he could get the money in two weeks," according to a synopsis of the matter issued by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Kathleen Willey later testified that her husband called her in the morning while she was on her way to volunteer for Meals on Wheels. He told her that he had "illegally" borrowed money and he needed her to sign a note promising repayment.
On Nov. 18, 1993, Willey and his wife signed a note promising to repay the $274,000 on demand. The repayment was to occur in two weeks, according to the court synopsis.
Disaster, not to mention jail, loomed. Newsweek later wrote that the Willeys had a tense argument on Nov. 28. It was clear they would not be able to repay.
But the Willeys were not ordinary debtors. Kathleen decided to turn to the new president for help, reportedly seeking a job to help dig the family out of debt. With only days remaining on the deadline, Willey met Clinton in the Oval Office just before 3 p.m. on Nov. 29.
Two hours later, while his wife was still in Washington, Ed Willey drove his Isuzu Trooper to a wooded area, got out and walked into the forest. He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, unaware of the outcome of his wife's encounter with Clinton. His body was discovered the next day by hunters. He was 60 years old.
"He was just a guy who was robbing Peter to pay Paul," said a lawyer who knew him in Richmond and asked to remain anonymous.
If Ed Willey's problems were over, his wife's were entering a new phase. By chance, as she left Clinton's office in the West Wing, Willey bumped into White House employee Tripp, according to Tripp's account in Newsweek. Tripp said Willey looked "disheveled," with a flushed face and smeared lipstick. Willey told her the president had made an aggressive pass, Tripp said.
Four years later, the dominoes began to fall. An anonymous caller passed along the incident to a lawyer for Paula Jones, who was pursuing sexual harassment allegations against the president. The lawyer subpoenaed Willey and Tripp. Word of the subpoenas circulated around Washington in the summer of 1997.
Tripp told Newsweek that Willey, far from looking harassed, appeared "happy and joyful" coming out of the Oval Office. Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's attorney, said Tripp was "not to be believed." Tripp remembered Bennett's statement when Lewinsky began telling her about an alleged relationship with the president, according to Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent. This time, Tripp got it on tape.
Earlier this month, Lewinsky reportedly presented Tripp with "talking points" aimed at getting her to refute her early statements about Willey when she was asked about them by Paula Jones's lawyers. Willey gave a deposition to Jones's lawyers earlier this month.
But all that was far in the future for the Kathleen Willey who was forced to deal with her husband's death in 1993.
She had co-signed the $274,000 note with her husband. A lawyer for Lanasa and his sister came after her.
The lawyer, Joseph Kaestner, won a judgment for the money. He has yet to get it enforced.
A lien against Kathleen Willey's house was thwarted when her children, who held a note on the house, were able to force the house into foreclosure. The house was then purchased by a company managed by a family friend, which resold it, according to Kaestner.
Kaestner is still pursuing legal action to recover the money, which has grown to more than $400,000 with interest.
Then there was the matter of the $1 million payment from Ed Willey's life insurance policy.
The bulk of that money, $700,000, went to Willey's two children and could not be touched. But the portion that went to Kathleen Willey -- $350,845.92 -- was vulnerable. The solution: Kathleen Willey renounced her claim to any insurance money and it all went to her children. Lanasa and his sister challenged the result but the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Willey.
While the legal dramas played out, Kathleen Willey worked at a permanent paid job at the White House that she received shortly after her husband's death. In December 1993, she began a 10-month stint with the White House counsel's office.
In 1995, the White House recommended that she serve on U.S. delegations to conferences on social development in Copenhagen and biodiversity in Jakarta, according to press accounts.
In 1996, Clinton appointed her to an unpaid position with the board of governors of the United Service Organization, the civilian entity that looks after the social needs of service members and is better known as the USO.
"She's an extremely nice person," said Patrice Messer, the USO's director of public relations. "She's always been very helpful and supportive."
Willey now lives in a wooded neighborhood in Powhatan County.
All of it confounds Anthony Lanasa and his sister.
"It's really emotional for us," said Lanasa's sister, Josephine Abbott. "I got tired of getting beat to death in the courts. We have to go on with our lives."
Lanasa, who owns V.F. Lanasa Inc., a produce company, said somebody once asked him how it felt to lose so much money.
"I'm going to eat my lunch and go back to work and make some more money," Lanasa said he told them. "And tonight, I'm going to go home to have a party with my children and grandchildren. Ed Willey's in a cemetery. Who's better off?"
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