Starr's lowest blow

In indicting Julie Hiatt Steele, the independent counsel continues a pattern of bullying women.

Published December 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I phoned Julie Hiatt Steele last week at the behest of a mutual acquaintance. I felt a bit like a voyeur: Just a few hours earlier this 51-year-old single mother had been indicted by Kenneth Starr. I fully expected to find someone broken by inquisitorial pressure. Her travails had already been recounted in the press, on talk shows and in Congress: investigation of her 8-year-old's adoption, the prospect of facing down the nation's most powerful prosecutor with no resources of her own. Yet the voice on the other end of the phone was neither shattered nor haunted. Angry, yes; and so protective of her son that she doubted he should ever even meet a reporter.

But when I asked her what she most desired, her answer was neither peace nor a return to privacy nor that the pressure on her family end. It was one word, repeated several times: "Vindication."

Julie Hiatt Steele is, as has been widely written, merely a peripheral figure in the Clinton impeachment saga: a former friend of Kathleen Willey who once vouched for Willey's claim that she was groped by the president and later -- before the Monica Lewinsky scandal ever broke -- told Newsweek she'd lied at Willey's behest. Yet while Steele is a third-tier player -- a carrier of gossip -- her indictment goes to the heart of the Clinton impeachment trial. Not, as has been generally presumed, because she might somehow bring Willey's allegations to life again, but because Steele's own story fits conveniently into the baroque, conspiratorial tapestry that Starr and the House impeachment squad have spun in hopes of driving the president from office.

The basic facts bear repeating. In August 1997, Newsweek reported Willey's claim that President Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office. Reporter Michael Isikoff talked to Steele, who said Willey had told her about the incident at the time. But before Isikoff's article ever appeared, Steele changed her story: Her friend Willey, she told Isikoff, had asked her to spread the story of harassment, but she admitted the story was a fabrication. Newsweek printed both versions. Eventually, Julie Steele -- a registered Republican active in charitable work and social service -- found herself interviewed by Ken Starr's FBI agents and subpoenaed before two of his grand juries. Each time, she repeated her recantation of the initial story. Each time, the pressure increased: Starr called her brother, her former lawyer and her adult child. And Steele charged in the media -- most notably on the Larry King show -- that Starr's staff even asked questions about the legality of her adoption of a Romanian infant, her son Adam, now 8.

Is this about resurrecting Willey? Certainly, Steele stood in the way of Willey being more than a footnote to the Starr Report or the House's articles of impeachment. Yet even if Steele reversed herself tomorrow, it would not do much to make Willey a credible witness against the president at his trial -- and Starr's staff knows it. As Salon was the first to report, Willey herself has severe credibility problems: She had once falsely accused a business associate of murdering her husband, harassing him so persistently that a judge issued an arrest warrant; she was sued for evading repayment of money her husband had embezzled; and later, after she appeared on "60 Minutes," White House documents showed that she'd substantially misrepresented her contact with Clinton after the president's alleged pass. What she may or may not have once told Steele does not alter the shaky foundations of her dependability.

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But if not for Willey, why is Starr pursuing this single mother, sending FBI agents to probe into her son's adoption and finally threatening Steele herself with prison? The answer is buried in Paragraph 17 of Starr's indictment: Because in January 1998, months after she'd already told Newsweek the Willey story was false, "an attorney for President Clinton interviewed Defendant Steele at her home in Virginia." Shortly afterward, Steele provided the president's legal team with an affidavit repeating the recantation she'd already made to the press.

There you have it. Long before the Lewinsky story broke, Ken Starr and the impeachment faction convinced themselves that their Arkansas and Washington trawls were coming up empty only because the president's attorneys were acting like mob lawyers in "The Godfather," buying the silence of those with knowledge of supposed presidential wrongdoing, or delivering the Arkansas equivalent of a horse's head. This explained Webster Hubbell's and Susan McDougal's persistent refusal to implicate the Clintons in their own illegalities; it explained the failure of Whitewater, Filegate, the campaign finance investigations to produce anything resembling a smoking gun.

As the independent counsel himself noted in his final report, when Starr sought authority to include Lewinsky in his investigation, it was to prove that her lie in her Paula Jones deposition, too, had been purchased through the intercession of Vernon Jordan, Bettie Currie and other White House operatives. This presumed conspiracy is the central theory of the impeachment, and it is why the House Republicans were willing to charge Clinton with obstruction of justice in the Jones case -- even while voting down the far-more-convincing charge of presidential perjury in Clinton's Jones deposition.

The trouble is, of course, that this net of presidential influence-peddling has yet to be proven in a single instance. Webb Hubbell denies the White House has bought his silence. Monica Lewinsky says "nobody ever promised me a job or told me to lie."

Enter Julie Hiatt Steele. Starr's indictment notes portentously that when first approached by a lawyer working for Clinton counselor Bob Bennett, "Defendant Steele, upon advice of her attorney, decided not to sign the affidavit" saying Willey had asked her to lie. But "Sometime thereafter, Defendant Steele changed her mind."

In that change of mind -- in Steele's decision to supply the president's lawyers with an account of Willey's alleged duplicity -- lies the impeachment squad's conviction that she, too, is now part of the vast White House conspiracy to obstruct justice. Her affidavit in the Jones case makes up the first count of obstruction of justice in Starr's indictment.

But like so many other charges behind the Clinton case now before the Senate, the indictment of Steele contains more holes than connective tissue. The president's legal team only approached Steele after her retraction was noted in Newsweek, as Steele's attorney, Nancy Luque, points out. It's true Steele was uneasy about getting involved in the Jones case, but once she gave her affidavit she never wavered from her account. What's more -- and this is crucial considering that it is a linchpin of her indictment -- Clinton's legal team never even entered Steele's affidavit into evidence. She was never a witness in the Jones case. She's being charged with obstruction of justice for a statement that never even made it to the court clerk's office.

That's hardly the only dubious count in Starr's indictment. Incredibly, the independent counsel charges her for repeating her story on Larry King. It's as if the First Amendment did not exist. The indictment claims the Larry King interview is relevant because Steele sent a copy to the grand jury "without being asked in any way" -- when in fact, according to attorney Luque, the interview was sent in response to a subpoena. It's a mini-version of the "perjury trap" sprung against the president: First pressure Steele to submit an interview that's no business of the grand jury's, then indict her for submitting it. The indictment makes much of two acquaintances of Steele's, "John Doe No. 1" and "Jane Doe No. 1," to whom she supposedly repeated the Willey story. But even if that's true, it doesn't make Willey's story true or Steele's recantation false. It just means she spread gossip.

As with the Clinton impeachment case, there will no doubt be enough she-said/she-said elements to the charges against Steele to fill MSNBC's dead air for a month. But that does not change the singularly vindictive nature of her indictment.

And if to the impeachment squad Steele seems an integral part of the baroque tale of presidential obstruction, her indictment in fact fits into Starr's curious war on women. The long imprisonment of Susan McDougal; the coerced testimony of Lewinsky; the threats to Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, so similar to Starr's vicious attempt to threaten Steele's adoption; the long and fruitless attempt to indict Hillary Rodham Clinton for a variety of imagined malfeasances in Travelgate and the Rose billing scandal.

This is the pattern, the modus operandi at the center of the Senate's impeachment case, that lies behind the impeachment faction's persistent call for witnesses, witnesses, witnesses as Clinton's impeachment trial opens: Since there's no case against the president, threaten the women, subpoena the women, indict the women, until someone -- Monica, Bettie, Susan, Julie -- breaks.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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