By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
President Clinton called his personal secretary back to the White House for a private weekend meeting after his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case to go over his testimony regarding Monica S. Lewinsky, the secretary has told investigators, according to a person familiar with her account.
Betty Currie, the secretary stationed just outside of the Oval Office, told investigators that Clinton probed her memories of his contacts with Lewinsky to see whether they matched his own, the source said. The president, this person added, told Currie she had always been in earshot whenever he was with Lewinsky and asked if that was right.
She answered yes, the source said, although she later told investigators that she was not physically in the room with them at all times.
Currie, 58, who has worked for Clinton throughout his administration and who testified last week for three hours before a grand jury that is part of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation, has been cooperating with prosecutors from Starr's office, an informed source said.
Currie's cooperation could be important as Starr investigates whether Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky but lied about it under oath during his Jones deposition, after encouraging Lewinsky to do the same. During his deposition Jan. 17, Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. He said if he was ever alone with her while she worked at the White House, it would only have been for a few moments as she transacted business, and he said he could not recall being alone with her after she left her White House job in April 1996, according to sources knowledgeable about his testimony.
Lewinsky first came to work at the White House as an unpaid intern in the summer of 1995. In December of that year, she was given a low-level full-time job in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, where she remained until moving to the Pentagon. She first came to Starr's attention when her onetime friend, Linda R. Tripp, turned over to prosecutors 20 hours of tapes she had secretly made of conversations in which Lewinsky discussed an affair she claimed she had with Clinton.
While Currie reportedly is cooperating, Starr has not had such success winning the testimony of Lewinsky herself. The prosecutor and her lawyer, who have been sparring over her testimony for weeks, exchanged a harsh rhetorical volley yesterday that left the state of their negotiations even more tense and confusing. Starr insisted that Lewinsky be interviewed in person by his attorneys before they would consider giving her immunity for her testimony, while her attorney, William H. Ginsburg, said he already had such a written deal from Starr in hand and accused Starr of "an orchestrated campaign to pressure Ms. Lewinsky into statements that are not true."
Starr has been searching for independent witnesses who can place the president alone in a room with Lewinsky, and his staff has led the grand jury through a methodical examination of the West Wing to establish who could see what from where. Currie's reported testimony would be the first known corroboration that Clinton was alone with Lewinsky in the White House.
But a source close to Clinton said Currie's account was more ambiguous than prosecutors apparently see it. By asking her to come to the White House to discuss the matter the day after his deposition in the Jones case, Clinton was trying to confirm the accuracy of his own memory, not coaching Currie about what she should say if asked, the source said.
"There's a perfectly innocent explanation for this," said this person. "And the innocent explanation is that he basically was recollecting what had transpired and was checking to see if Ms. Currie's recollection was the same as his. And basically, it was."
The White House declined to discuss Currie's account, which was first reported in the early edition of today's New York Times. "We've been the subject for two weeks of false leaks designed to mislead both reporters and the American public," said one White House official who did not want to be named. "We're not going to respond to the latest false leak."
Currie's name has surfaced repeatedly since the Lewinsky allegations first were reported last month. Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a close friend of Clinton's, said that he helped arrange private-sector job interviews for Lewinsky, who left a job at the Pentagon in late December, after Currie requested his help. White House Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, who testified before the grand jury yesterday, has said that his request to Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to find Lewinsky a job at Richardson's office also was at the request of Currie.
According to White House logs turned over to Starr's office, Lewinsky visited the White House three dozen times after she left her employment there for the Pentagon in April 1996. For many of those visits, sources have said, she gained admission from Currie.
Currie was also the designated recipient of more than a half-dozen packages Lewinsky sent to the Oval Office.
Lewinsky was one of several women Clinton was asked about during his deposition as Jones's attorneys tried to establish a pattern of illicit sexual behavior to help their client prove that he once propositioned her for sex in a Little Rock hotel suite in 1991. However, sources familiar with the six-hour, closed-door session said the questions about Lewinsky stood out to Clinton because of the depth of detail Did he ever give her presents? Was Lewinsky signed in to the White House by Currie but actually visited with Clinton while there?
The focus on Lewinsky apparently troubled Clinton enough that when he returned to the White House that Saturday evening, he called Currie and asked her to come into work the next day to discuss the matter, according to one source knowledgeable about the incident. At that point, he ran through a series of questions with her that tracked those he had been asked the day before.
Investigators later asked Currie why she told Clinton he was right when he said she was always in earshot, the source said. Currie responded that she considered the president's statement "basically right" because she was always in the outer office outside the Oval Office, the source said.
Lawrence Wechsler, Currie's lawyer, did not respond to several telephone messages left at his home and office last night. In a statement he gave to the Times, Wechsler said, "Without commenting on the allegations raised in this article, to the extent that there is any implication or suggestion that Mrs. Currie was aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone, that implication or suggestion is entirely inaccurate."
The Currie development capped a day when Starr jockeyed publicly with Ginsburg over securing Lewinsky's testimony. In a rare written statement issued last evening, Starr said he and his staff have concluded they cannot decide whether to offer her some form of immunity until they interview her face to face, something they have not been able to do so far.
"We cannot responsibly determine whether she [Lewinsky] is telling the truth without speaking directly to her," Starr said. "We have found that there is no substitute for looking a witness in the eye, asking detailed questions, matching the answers against verifiable facts, and if appropriate, giving a polygraph test."
Ginsburg responded with his own statement, in which he essentially accused Starr of wanting Lewinsky to lie, and said: "Judge Starr has made an agreement to grant Monica Lewinsky complete immunity and sent Ms. Lewinsky a letter confirming the grant of immunity. Under that agreement Judge Starr has the right to meet face to face with Ms. Lewinsky at any time and for as long as he wishes to meet. His continued insistence that he cannot have a face to face talk with Ms. Lewinsky has no basis in fact. Under the immunity agreement, Mr. Starr has the right to polygraph tests and other forensic mechanisms to test the truth and veracity of Ms. Lewinsky."
Deborah Gershman, Starr's spokeswoman, said last night that his office had no immediate comment on the Ginsburg statement.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that prosecutors decided a written statement Lewinsky provided this week was not solid enough to form the basis of a cooperation agreement because it contained inconsistencies and contradictions. While she acknowledged a sexual relationship with Clinton in the "proffer," sources familiar with the document said she offered a muddled account of whether Clinton or Jordan urged her to lie about it.
Starr's staff has asked Lewinsky's lawyers, who were with her in California, to decide by today whether they will make her available for an interview.
The independent counsel continued move forward on other fronts yesterday as Podesta appeared before a Washington grand jury to testify about his efforts to help Lewinsky get a job in New York.
Starr also issued a second subpoena to Jones's lawyers, this time seeking records not just about Lewinsky but also about Kathleen E. Willey, a onetime White House aide who has said the president groped her, and about any other "Jane Doe" women whose relationships with Clinton they had researched.
For his part, Clinton publicly denied the allegations for the third time since the crisis erupted two weeks ago. "I've already said that the charges are false," he said when asked about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky at an appearance with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "But there is an ongoing investigation. And I think it's important that I go back and do the work for the American people that I was hired to do."
Clinton began his day at the National Prayer Breakfast, a bipartisan, multidenominational event that draws nearly 4,000 people.
"I thank you for the prayers, the letters, the Scriptural instruction that I have gotten from so many of you and many others around this country, in recent weeks and indeed in the last five years," he said. "And I ask that they continue."
The Rev. Billy Graham, frail with Parkinson's disease, said after a warm standing ovation that everyone is a sinner in need of "repentance and forgiveness." As the president sat with head bowed, his hand placed over his face, Graham noted he has prayed with Clinton in private and "I know that he is sincere."
As Starr continued to march witnesses before a grand jury yesterday, he averted for now a confrontation with the White House over confidential presidential communications.
White House lawyers had attempted to restrict questioning of senior aides so they would not be asked about private conversations with Clinton about the Lewinsky matter; Starr had refused to make such guarantees and the White House was contemplating whether to invoke executive privilege.
But during a little more than an hour before the grand jury yesterday, Podesta was not asked questions deemed out-of-bounds by the White House, although he was told he will be recalled later, according to sources familiar with his testimony. Instead, prosecutors focused on Podesta's intervention with Ambassador Richardson last year to help Lewinsky get a U.N. job, the sources said.
At the White House, Clinton said he had not yet decided whether to invoke executive privilege for his aides because for now "that's a hypothetical question." But he noted that "for four years we've been cooperating exhaustively" with Starr inquiries into Whitewater and other matters.
Podesta, the sources said, testified that he asked Richardson to consider Lewinsky for a job at Currie's request, although he could not even remember Lewinsky's name at the time. "Nothing in my testimony, in any way, contradicted the strong denial the president has made to these allegations," Podesta later told reporters.
While it has been previously reported that Richardson offered Lewinsky a job that she turned down, sources familiar with the situation disclosed this week that the ambassador held the low-level public affairs position open for two months before Lewinsky rejected it, saying she planned to work in the private sector. Lewinsky was hired by Revlon last month after an interview arranged by Jordan, although the job offer was rescinded when the current controversy became public.
The grand jury also heard yesterday from Justin Coleman, another former White House intern, who was questioned about at least one package sent by Lewinsky and addressed to Currie, which he signed for sometime between August 1997 and January 1998 when he worked in the president's office. Coleman, 21, a Brown University student, later told reporters, "I, at no time, had knowledge of any relation proper or improper between the president and Miss Lewinsky."
At least part of the rest of the grand jury's day may have been devoted to listening to audiotapes of Lewinsky's conversations made by Tripp and the FBI. A court official took several sets of headphones into the grand jury area.
Starr continued to seek other evidence that would attest to a close relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. He issued a subpoena yesterday to a Florida television station seeking any videotapes showing the president with Lewinsky during his March 1997 visit with golf star Greg Norman, the trip when he damaged his knee in a late-night accident and had to be flown back to Washington for emergency surgery.
However, no evidence has emerged that she was in Florida. Officials at the Pentagon, where she transferred from the White House in April 1996, said last week that Lewinsky was in the office at the time of Clinton's trip. Her boss, defense spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon, traveled with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to North Carolina on the first leg of the president's trip; Bacon recalled through an aide that before he left, Lewinsky asked him to bring her a memento from Air Force One, which he forgot to do.
Alan Bell, president of the broadcasting division of the company that owns WPEC-Channel 12, a CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, said his staff already had searched for any footage containing Lewinsky before the subpoena arrived and had failed to find any.
After an unrelated court appearance in Little Rock yesterday, Starr told reporters asking about the Lewinsky matter that he he has "made very significant progress" in the investigation but could not describe negotiations with her attorneys. "I will simply say this: We are going by the book. We want the truth. We want all the truth. We want it completely, accurately. . . . That is the absolute bedrock point. We want the truth."
Starr, who has come under attack from the White House, noted that his investigation was sanctioned by the Clinton Justice Department. "The attorney general of the United States gave this office jurisdiction over very serious allegations," he said.
That was underscored by skeptical comments yesterday from a former Clinton aide. Dee Dee Myers, his first White House press secretary, said she found it inexplicable that Lewinsky visited the White House three dozen times in the 20 months after leaving her job there.
Myers said not even she has visited the White House that many times since leaving. "There's no way to convince the American people that 37 visits to the White House by a former intern is routine," Myers said on CNBC.
"That's extraordinary," Myers said, "and raises a lot of questions."
Staff writers Toni Locy, John M. Goshko, Ceci Connolly and Lois Romano contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company