Poolside at Nassau's chic, high-priced Ocean Club hotel, two strait-laced Mormons from Washington sat in the Caribbean sun, sippling pina coladas without the rum, waiting on the truth from a celebrated swindler.
Jack Anderson, the famous Washington columnist, and Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Republican senator from Utah, brought their wives along on this strange investigative journey, just in case the July 4 weekend on Paradise Island turned out to be a burst.
In some ways it was a roaring success. Jack Anderson subsequently wrote three columns boldly suggesting new scandal in the Carter administration, columns that appeared in more than 900 newspapers, including The Washington Post.
The junior senator from Utah, thanks to Anderson's columns, found himself surrounded by inquiring press. The senator modestly estimated that the most important congressional investigations in American history might be germinating.
And Robert L. Vesco, rogue financier, offshore fugitive from U.S. justice for more than decade, a roving exile who has now tried to bribe two U.S. presidents, found himself once again in the big, black headlines of the newspapers back home.
The New York Times, for example, announced the news on its front page: VESCO ROLE REPORTED IN BILLY CARTER CASE
But what exactly was the news?
According to Anderson's published columns, Vesco possesses hot new information -- including a segment of a tape recording -- that connects one allegation to another in a kind of triple-play scandal called "the Vesco Libyan-Carter connection." If Vesco will talk, the republic would tremble.
Vesco did talk, sort of. "In double-speak" and "riddles," according to participants.
Vesco even took and passed a lie detector test, arranged by Anderson to reassure Sen. Hatch. But a month afterward, after more fishing trips to Nassau and many more headlines, Robert L. Vesco is still teasing and tantalizing the investigators. The hot new scandal he promised them is barely lukewarm, more wish than fact.
"It's a major scandal," Jack Anderson insisted in an interview last week. "And a good deal of it has yet to come out. It's not over."
Whether it is scandal or farce, the Vesco-Anderson-Hatch connection is surely a strange chapter of journalism, even in that twilight zone where investigative reporters and their well-informed sources do business.Though he didn't tell his readers, Jack Anderson, the muckraking Pulitzer Prize journalist, played midwife for the struggling Senate investigation. He was matchmaker between Sen. Hatch and the swindler.
Not without some mutual distrust among them. Anderson, for instance, says he warned Hatch in advance that Vesco is "an operator, swindler, a con man."
Vesco, for his part, groused to a Senate aide about Anderson: "He's a bumbler. He's always been a bumbler."
Anderson concedes now that most of the material derived from the Nassau coming and going with Vesco is "old stuff," but he defended the event itself as most newsworthy.
"I had a chance to get in on it and get an exclusive story," Anderson explained. "That's all I'm concerned with. But, as far as my news judgement goes, I don't apologize for that."
But Anderson was also seeking personal, vindication -- searching for new ammunition in a two-year-old feud with the Carter White House."
This bitter argument begun in September 1978, when Anderson alleged that Hamilton Jordan, the president's top aide, was "implicated" in a $10 million payoff. The scheme, Anderson charged, originated with Vesco, who wanted to buy his way out of longstanding legal troubles. Vesco spent $200,000 trying to buy the same thing from the Nixon administration eight years ago. This time, according to Anderson. Vesco hooked up with some hustling South Georgia entrepreneurs who were promised big buck if they could fix things with old friends among the Carter people so that Vesco would never be prosecuted.
The White House responded to the charges with ridicule and denunciation and detailed denial. In the heated contest and detailed denial. In the heated contest that followed, the president's team established that Anderson's key piece of evidence -- a letter purportedly written by one of the Georgians, spelling out the deal -- was not the real thing. Anderson conceded gingerly in print that the letter was a "reconstruction." But Anderson never lost faith in his scandal.
Jack Anderson had already experienced personal contact with Vesco. When the fugitive was exiled in Central America, the columnist arranged a trade -- Vesco would appear on Anderson's lie-detector television show, called "Truth," and, in exchange, Anderson would carry a message for him back to chief enforcement officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency that was after him.
Vesco wanted to trade with the SEC, too. If the government would grant him immunity on past stock fraud prosecution, Vesco would tell all about the supposed White House bribery plot. Stanley Sporkin, the SEC enforcement chief, replied: no deal.
"That was the only way I could get to see him," Anderson explained. "And I explained to Sporkin why I had agreed to deliver the message -- so I could get a story."
While other reporters turned to other subjects, Anderson never forgot the Vesco case. Indeed, he feels that the major news organizations, including The Washington Post, have been derelict, ignoring the many "smoking guns" that Anderson perceives in the evidence.
"There are more 'smoking guns' already exposed in the Robert Vesco-White House case," Anderson thundered, "than you had in the first year of the Watergate case."
The columnist was distressed further last spring when a federal grand jury, which had been looking at the case for 18 months, concluded its work without corroborating his charges. Anderson himself volunteered to testify before the grand jury and, by his account, he was such a fount of promising new leads and information that the jurors applauded.
Afterward, reciting the complaints of the grand jury foreman, Ralph Ulmer, columnist Anderson concluded that a blatant cover-up was underway, raising additional allegations about the Justice Department.
(A grand jury in New York is looking into a different set of allegations involving Vesco's alleged role in another plot to bribe Carter administration officials.)
Meanwhile, the Carter administration had not forgotten the Vesco affair either. Then-attorney general Griffin Bell was so angered by Anderson's original accusations that he made a special trip to Camp David in the midst of the Middle East peace talks, to share his distress with President Carter. He urged Carter to muster State Department assistance to press the Bahamas to expel Vesco so the fugitive could be returned to American justice.
"The judge [Bell] was made as hell," recalls one of his former top aides.
"He said Vesco was trying to buy a government and that guy ought to be brought to justice."
Indeed, long afterward, the FBI was still working on the various schemes to catch Vesco. One plan envisioned luring the cagey con man onto an airplane which would then be mysteriously diverted to U.S. soil. FBI agents would be waiting to nab him.
The FBI planning, codenamed "Operation Kingfish," never came to anything, but Vesco heard about it and was enraged. Vesco tells a more dramatic version: the FBI meant to kidnap and kill him.
That's where Jack Anderson comes into the story again. He read a Camden, N.J., newspaper account of the FBI plan and Vesco's outrage, figured Vesco might be ready to tell his full story to Senate investigators and offered to arrange the opportunity.
Vesco agreed and that led to the July 4 rendezvous at poolside with Anderson, Hatch, a lie-detector expert, and investigators from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Vesco passed the lie test, which pleased all present. Vesco, it is said, clutched the printed results like a schoolboy bringing home a straingt-A report card. The senator wanted everyone present to sign it as witnesses.
The test, however, may reasonably be viewed by others as less than persuasive. Vesco was asked eight questions about various particulars in the long and tangled story and answered truthfully, according to the polygraph expert who administered the test. But the sum of the eight parts does not make a case against anyone, except possibly Vesco.
After the polygraph test, they all dined and talked. Hatch stayed up late, typing out recollections of the conversations with Vesco. Anderson was in and out of the room, looking over the senator's shoulder, providing "only background," he says. Thomas D. Parry, a minority counsel on Judiciary who reports to Hatch, was the main author.
The senator's staff calls this document an "aide memoire." When Anderson returned to Washington he wrote three executive columns quoting from the memo and calling it a "Senate report." He did not even tell them he was in Nassau and present at the Vesco interrogation.
But there were problems. As Hatch noted, Vesco promised much more than he delivered in terms of hard evidence. The fugitive witness was "going to hold back several aces," the memo says, in order to bargain.
Furthermore, Vesco reportedly denounced the first draft of the "aide memoire" after it was read to him by phone. It was, Vesco reportedly complained, "full of inaccuracies." Hatch aide Perry flew back to Nassau to work out a corrected version.
Last week, when the Billy Carter affair was grabbing the biggest headlines, the Vesco-Anderson-Hatch connection cruised along in the slow lane. The Utah senator returned to Nassau for more questioning, hopeful that Vesco would turn lose some of his "aces." This time, Hatch was accompanied by a Democrat, the chairman of a Judiciary subcommittee, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who had authorized further investigation.
The presence of DeConcini, a former prosecutor from Tucson, added a flavor of bipartisan respectability to the inquiry, but the results were again disappointing. Vesco provided some new "leads," according to Hatch, certain names of people to be questioned, but he did not turn over the tape recordings or documents that are supposedly his "aces."
DeConcini flew home to Washington and shared with the press Vesco's latest story -- that Vesco himself had personally arranged for Libya to pay $220,000 to Billy Carter, the president's brother.
Hatch was excited by the prospects and promised to pursue the investigation.
DeConcini was considerably more skeptical.
"A con man," the former prosecutor concluded.
The next day, Vesco himself had what may be the last word, at least for now, in this strange affair. Vesco left his seaside home and marched to the offices of the Nassau Tribune where he denounced the many news articles about him.
His conversations with the U.S. senators, Vesco averred, were in 'no way intended to be an attack on President Carter or anyone else, but simply to respond to questions accurately and truthfully as they were posed, letting the chips fall as they may, without in any way trying to judge the culpability of any person.
"From published reports so far, it would appear that the re-election atmosphere is resulting in a series of statements being attributed to me, and such statements are not necesarily accurate."