The Miami Herald reported yesterday that a news team that staked out Democratic presidential front-runner Gary Hart’s Capitol Hill townhouse determined that a young woman from Miami spent Friday night and Saturday with him while his wife was in Denver.
Hart, whose campaign has been debating for three weeks how to deal with questions of alleged “womanizing,” denounced the story as “preposterous” and “inaccurate.” He said he is the victim of “character assassination” by unethical and “outrageous” journalism that is “reduced to hiding in bushes, peeking in windows and personal harassment."
The paper, which spread the story across the top of its front page, said that a team of five Herald and Knight Ridder reporters kept the front and rear entrances of Hart’s townhouse under surveillance from Friday evening until Saturday night, except for a period between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. They said they saw Hart and the woman enter the house about 11:15 p.m. Friday and saw no one leave or enter until Hart and the woman came out at about 8:40 p.m. Saturday.
Members of the Herald team said they would have seen anyone entering or leaving the house during those hours, except for the predawn period. According to one of them, they “napped” during that time.
Approached by the reporters later Saturday night, Hart denied having any “personal relationship” with the woman, denied that she had spent the night at his house and said that she had come to Washington to visit friends. He said that the woman, identified by the Hart campaign as Donna Rice, was in his townhouse for only a few minutes and that she and a female friend from Miami had stayed at the home of William Broadhurst, a Washington attorney and friend of Hart. Telephones at Broadhurst's office and home were not answered yesterday.
Hart told the reporters, however, that he had called Rice in Miami several times in the past two months from campaign stops around the country. He described the calls as “casual, political.” Hart said he did not know what Rice's occupation is.
"The story in its facts and in its inferences is totally inaccurate,” Hart’s campaign manager, William Dixon, said in a statement. “Gary Hart will not dignify it with a comment because it’s character assassination. It’s harassment. He’s offended and he’s outraged. He’s furious. He’s a victim. Someone has got to say at some point that enough is enough. . . . "
"As you know, Mr. Hart has suggested the press follow him to disprove the allegations on womanizing,” Herald Executive Editor Heath Meriwether replied in a statement. “We observed Hart's townhouse for more than 24 hours from a respectable distance and we conducted ourselves in a professional manner throughout. We never engaged in the practices suggested by Mr. Dixon. The womanizing issue has become a major one in Hart's campaign because it raises questions concerning the candidate's judgment and integrity. That's why we reported on this story."
The story appeared just three weeks after Hart formally announced his candidacy. During that time, he was faced with questions about womanizing and his unpaid $1.3 million debt from his 1984 presidential race. His advisers had hoped that the focus would move on to substantive issues.
The story’s publication also coincided with an Iowa Poll showing that Hart has increased his enormous lead over rivals in that state, which will hold the first 1988 presidential caucus. His share of the vote increased to 65 percent from 59 percent, followed by Jesse L. Jackson with 9 percent, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) with 7 percent and Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts with 3 percent.
Yesterday's New York Times Magazine also featured a cover story about Hart that quotes him on the womanizing issue:
“Follow me around. . . . I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
Hart supporters speculated that a great deal now depends on the reaction of Hart's wife, Lee.
"If it’s true, it’s incredibly self-destructive because it means he’s been womanizing all the time he was denying it,” said one supporter and contributor.
Dixon, Hart's campaign manager, expressed confidence that the voters would see the story as false and react accordingly.
"If fair people are given the opportunity to reach a fair conclusion, then we're not afraid of it,” he said. “This raises the whole question of journalistic ethics. It raises a question of at what point the question becomes character assassination."
Dixon said yesterday that Hart apparently met Rice last New Year's Eve in Aspen, Colo., at a party hosted by Don Henley, a member of the Eagles rock group. He said that Lee Hart was with Hart at the party.
Hart and Rice met again in March — March 1, according to the Miami Herald — when Hart and Broadhurst were in Miami, where Hart had a fundraising event. They were on a chartered boat, and Rice and a friend, Lynn Armandt, came on board for about an hour, Dixon said. He said Hart did not remember Rice from the first meeting, so she said to him, “Hey, I know you, you're Senator Hart."
At the time, Armandt told Broadhurst that she was looking for a job in Washington and he offered to interview her as a caretaker for the townhouses he owns on Capitol Hill, Dixon said. Armandt came up last Friday for the interview and asked Rice to accompany her because she wasn't comfortable staying alone in the home of a stranger.
According to Dixon, Armandt's job interview took place midafternoon Friday, then Broadhurst drove her to the airport to meet Rice. Coincidentally, Hart flew in to National Airport about the same time and the four of them drove back to Broadhurst's house where they had dinner together.
At about 11:15 p.m. the four walked to Hart’s Capitol Hill townhouse, which is about three blocks away on Sixth Street SE, according to Dixon. He said they wanted to see a deck being built on the top of Hart’s townhouse; then Broadhurst, Armandt and Rice returned to Broadhurst’s apartment while Hart stayed at his house alone.
This statement contradicts the Herald report.
The Herald said it was told by a “confidential source” that Hart was interested in a Miami woman and that she planned to go to Washington for the weekend. The Herald did not know Rice’s name and had no information beyond a general description of her as an attractive blond actress in her late 20s, according to Jim Savage, a Knight Ridder editor who was on the surveillance team.
Investigative reporter Jim McGee boarded Eastern flight 996 last Friday afternoon and saw two women on the plane who met the general description. One was “lovingly” met in Washington by a boyfriend, and McGee lost track of the second. After checking in with the Knight Ridder bureau, he went to Hart’s house and saw the second woman emerge with Hart at about 9:15 p.m., according to Savage.
"We almost didn't send anyone up to Washington because our information was so minimal,” Savage said. “It was just an informed coincidence that Jim was on the same plane, and that's what got us charged up."
Herald reporter Tom Fiedler said the Herald team had the front and rear entrance to Hart's Capitol Hill townhouse under surveillance from about 9 p.m. Friday to about 10 p.m. Saturday.
The Herald surveillance team included reporters Fiedler and McGee, editors Savage and Doug Clifton and photographer Brian Smith.
"We had three cars that we parked legally on the street, where we had a view of the front and rear entrance of the townhouse,” Fiedler said. “There were a minimum of two people who watched through Friday night and five of us at various times on Saturday.” Fiedler said he joined the group about 10 a.m. Saturday.
The Herald reporters parked one of their cars across the street from Hart’s townhouse. “We had a clear vantage point of his front door,” Fiedler said. The second car was parked in the alley driveway that runs by the rear door to the townhouse, he said. A third car was parked near the corner of Sixth and E streets, he said.
At 9:30 p.m., according to Fiedler, McGee saw Hart and the Miami woman leave Hart's townhouse. McGee saw them return to the townhouse at about 11:17 p.m. Friday.
The team of McGee and Clifton remained on surveillance until about 10:30 a.m. Saturday, when they were relieved by Fiedler, Savage and Smith.
McGee and Clifton, after napping and eating, returned to the Hart townhouse at about 4 p.m. Saturday, Fiedler said.
"All five of us were there when Hart and the girl emerged at about 8:50 p.m. Saturday,” Fiedler said. The pair left by the rear entrance and walked around the block toward Hart's car. But instead of getting into the car, the two returned to the townhouse by the front door.
Hart came out alone about 30 minutes later, drove around the block, parked and walked several nearby streets.
Fiedler said that Hart apparently became aware that he was being watched Saturday evening when he came out of the townhouse with the woman. “That is when he seemed to get very spooked and dashed back into the house, instead of getting into the car,” Fiedler said.
At about 10 p.m. Saturday, as Hart was about to reenter his townhouse, he was met by Fiedler, McGee and Savage. “We didn’t go inside,” Fiedler said. “We stood outside and interviewed him."
It was during this interview that Hart denied having a personal relationship with Rice but acknowledged telephoning her from around the country.
Staff writers T.R. Reid, in Denver, and Molly Sinclair and researcher Maralee Schwartz contributed to this report.