Impeachment's little elves

How conservative lawyers used Matt Drudge and Kathleen Willey to scuttle a deal in the Paula Jones harassment case

Published March 4, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

If the lawyers for Paula Jones and President Clinton had reached a settlement during the summer of 1997 -- an outcome both sides were trying to achieve in good faith -- the nation would have been spared the Monica Lewinsky affair and the impeachment fiasco that followed. Jones' attorneys, Gilbert Davis and Joe Cammarata, thought they could work out a deal with Robert Bennett, the President's high-priced private counsel.

But a settlement, no matter how favorable to Jones, wouldn't have served the political purposes of the so-called "elves," an informal group of conservative attorneys who were secretly assisting her case. At a delicate stage, the settlement discussions could be scuttled by creating distrust between the Clinton and Jones camps. And there was no better way to raise tensions among the lawyers than by leaking sensitive investigative material about the president to the press.

This was explosive stuff, not wholly reliable but very juicy, and known only to a few insiders. It was to be used only if a settlement was impossible. Or so Davis and Cammarata believed — until they came to suspect, much later, that they had been deceived not by the Clinton attorneys, but by their own clever little friends.

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On July 25, 1997, Joseph Cammarata and Gilbert Davis moved to subpoena Kathleen Willey. Although their settlement negotiations with Robert Bennett had progressed slightly, both sides remained stuck on what kind of statement Clinton might issue to satisfy Paula Jones's need for an "apology." The Jones lawyers hoped to strengthen their bargaining hand with the threat of a devastating new witness. The mercurial Bennett reacted to the subpoena by threatening to withdraw from the negotiations. Any exposure of Willey's claims, he warned darkly, would be a deal breaker.

Like his client, Willey's lawyer Daniel Gecker had been cultivating both sides, talking to both Cammarata and Bennett. With Cammarata he had discussed ways to "preserve Willey's testimony" without a subpoena, such as obtaining her affidavit. From Bennett he had sought a promise that the White House wouldn't publicly attack Willey if she resisted testifying for Jones. Still insisting that she was a "reluctant witness," he filed motions to quash the subpoena, claiming that she had no information relevant to Jones's complaint.

Under additional pressure from the two insurance companies that were paying most of Clinton's legal costs, the settlement talks intensified. There was one scenario where everyone could minimize their losses: Jones and Clinton would settle, Willey would remain silent, and the White House would release no derogatory information about her.

The worst mistake Davis and Cammarata made was to confide all those sensitive details to their behind-the-scene advisers, a little group of committed conservatives led by Philadelphia lawyer Jerome Marcus. (It was Marcus's name that appeared most often on the time sheets kept by the Jones lawyers, although they frequently spoke and communicated with George Conway in New York, and less often with Richard Porter in Chicago.) Both men valued the assistance donated pro bono by the group, though they had believed from the beginning that Conway, Marcus, and Porter all were motivated more by hatred of Bill Clinton than by any desire to rescue Paula Jones. Yet Davis and Cammarata, although Republicans themselves, wouldn't countenance the misuse of their lawsuit to advance a partisan agenda. They took their duties as officers of the court seriously, and consistently placed their client's interest ahead of politics. They had also assumed that the advisers would behave honorably despite the fact that all three had insisted upon keeping their work in support of Jones secret from their own law partners.

Cammarata and Davis treated the group with absolute trust, faxing internal documents to them and often including them in strategic discussions as negotiations with the president's legal team proceeded. According to Davis, both Conway and Marcus knew about Kathleen Willey, and they certainly understood that public exposure of her allegations would badly complicate any prospects of a settlement. He simply expected them to keep their mouths shut. "There were many times back then that they were both on the phone with us on conference calls," he said. "We talked as lawyers. They did good, workmanlike work and we just assumed that they would keep all information confidential." In Davis's view, "Working with us, they were ethically required to do that, just as if they were attorneys of record on the case."

If Conway or Marcus did not feel bound by such strictures because they weren't in fact Jones's attorneys of record, neither ever said so to Davis or Cammarata. They did urge the Jones lawyers, more than once, to keep quiet about their own identities. "We didn't put Conway's name on our time records, but we talked with him extensively," recalled Davis. "There were numerous times when he and Marcus were both on the phone with us in conference calls."

Those calls provided useful guidance and consultation to the Jones lawyers, as Davis would readily admit (although he understandably took umbrage later when Isikoff suggested that he and Cammarata were small-time practitioners who would have been lost without all the outside help). Youngish hotshots who had gone to better schools and made partner early at important law firms, Marcus and Conway both exhibited a brash self-confidence.

Marcus's own wife had thought him "arrogant" from the day they met. At the University of Chicago Law School, where he had been friendly with Richard Porter, Marcus had been the kind of student who needed to shout out answers before the professor called on him. After graduating in 1987, he had eventually joined Berger & Montague, a heavily Democratic firm specializing in the kind of corporate tort lawsuits that Republicans have long tried to stifle. (Both name partner Daniel Berger and his son, also a firm partner, were personally friendly with Clinton; together, they donated almost $175,000 to the Democratic Party during the 1996 election cycle.) A registered Democrat married to an "inveterate liberal" and living in a Philadelphia suburb, Marcus was an unlikely anti-Clinton conspirator. But he despised Clinton profoundly, had voted for Bush in 1992, and had made his views known in articles for the Washington Times. It was Porter who brought him into the Jones clique early on, as a specialist in the constitutional separation of powers. Having helped put together the Jones legal team, Porter had foreseen the need for expert advice to counter Bennett's argument that the president cannot be sued while in office.

Though a few years younger than the others, George T. Conway III was even more successful and considerably higher profile. In his early thirties, he had made partner at New York's Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, one of the biggest and richest litigation shops in the country. His primary occupation was defending the major tobacco companies, and he reportedly made as much as $1 million a year doing it.

With his name and Yale Law School degree, Conway looked on paper like a scion of old wealth; he was in fact the middle-class son of an electrical engineer from suburban Boston. Short, dark, slightly overweight, and painfully shy, he was also, at the age of thirty-three, unmarried and without a regular girlfriend at the time. He aspired to date tall blondes, preferably of the conservative persuasion. Laura Ingraham, the woman he was pursuing in 1997, epitomized that desire. The willowy Ingraham had become a budding celebrity early in 1995 when the New York Times Magazine profiled young Washington conservatives, featuring her on the cover in a fetching leopard print miniskirt. For Conway and other right-wing males of his generation, she was an intellectual pinup.

He began to pursue her several years after both had clerked for Ralph Winter, a federal judge and leading patron of the Federalist Society. Conway's magnanimous courting behavior included inviting Ingraham on all-expense-paid ski trips and island holidays. On a Caribbean trip they once ran into Bob Bennett, an embarrassing moment for Ingraham. Before commencing her television career, she had been an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom-the firm where the president's lawyer was a partner and her friend.

Evidently it was Ingraham who connected Conway with Matt Drudge during the summer of 1997, though she and the tobacco lawyer insist they played no part in the Internet gossip's Willey scoops. Fascinated by the Drudge Report, as so many in Washington were, Ingraham had befriended its author after they met at the White House Correspondents Association spring awards dinner. In late June, she and David Brock hosted a gala dinner party at Brock's Georgetown townhouse, with Drudge as guest of honor.

About two weeks later, when Drudge returned to spend the Fourth of July weekend at Ingraham's home in northwest Washington, she presented him with a new source and a valuable scoop. Two knowledgeable sources affirm that on the evening of July 3, Ingraham took down the details about Kathleen Willey from Conway over the telephone while she and Drudge composed his stunning holiday "exclusive" about Isikoff's investigation of alleged sexual harassment in the White House. He headlined it "Ants in the Picnic Basket."

But Ingraham, who was working as a commentator for CBS News at the time, said she hadn't brought Conway to Drudge. "Believe me, if I had been a player or a source that first helped expose the lengths to which the President would go to save his own skin, I would have already claimed credit for it."

And Conway was just as emphatic in an August 1999 letter to the authors: "I never received any confidential information from Mr. Davis and Mr. Cammarata; nor did I ever provide such information to Mr. Drudge." He also insisted that he had never tried to "scuttle any settlement discussions" in the Jones case, because he had believed that settlement "was strongly in the interests of both sides ... ."

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe the source's account of that July 4 weekend.

Drudge's July 4 blind item about Kathleen Willey and the issuance of a subpoena to her had shaken up the president's lawyers, who now pressed for a deal. Then, on July 28, Drudge posted a "World Exclusive" that Gil Davis believes was planted to disrupt the delicate negotiations.

"WILLEY'S DECISION: White House Employee Tells Reporter That President Made Sex Pass," the headline proclaimed. The brief item had just enough detail to infuriate Bennett-and to sharply prod Isikoff, whom Drudge accused of "holding back" the "explosive story." It explained that Willey still refused to go on the record with the "Newsweek ace investigative reporter" about her allegation that Clinton had "fondled" her. In the week that followed, Drudge posted four additional stories. On July 29, he confirmed that Willey had indeed worked in the White House, and added in his own peculiar language that "the President made sexual overtones towards her as she made her request [for a job], according to intelligence familiar with her conversations with a reporter." Two days later, Drudge had the Willey subpoena, as did CBS News and several other news organizations, adding, "If Willey tells lawyers the same story she has told Isikoff-Washington will be rocked." Meanwhile the Web gossip had demoted his new rival to "Newsweek's once ace reporter."

On August 1, Drudge featured Gecker's public announcement that Willey intended to resist the Jones subpoena. In an aside, he attacked Isikoff again, blaming the reporter for the leak of the Willey story and suggesting that the story wouldn't have appeared without Drudge's intervention. He seemed to mock Isikoff for talking too much: "Reporter shares, he likes to have friends on all sides so he'll seem all-knowing for stories that he'll probably never print."

As he scrambled to get into print with the story Drudge had purloined, Isikoff naturally wondered how this disaster had befallen him. Tripp thought he had leaked Willey's name himself, and she wasn't entirely alone in that suspicion. That insinuation enraged Isikoff, who insisted he had told no one but his editors and a couple of trusted colleagues. Maybe, he thought, Drudge had hacked into the magazine's computer system.

Or else someone had gotten impatient waiting for Newsweek to publish the Willey story. Someone with both the inside knowledge and the motive to disrupt a negotiated settlement of Jones v. Clinton. By the time he wrote Uncovering Clinton, Isikoff had deduced the source and motive behind the Jones leaks. In the book he quotes Ann Coulter -- another blonde conservative attorney, media figure and, also like Ingraham, a member of George Conway's circle -- about the dread inspired among Jones's advisers by the prospect of a settlement.

An outspoken enemy of the Clintons who consulted on political strategy with Conway, Coulter admitted that they had given various journalists the story of the "distinguishing characteristic" of Clinton's penis, supposedly observed by Jones when he exposed himself to her in 1991. The reason, as she eventually explained to Isikoff: "We were terrified that Jones would settle. It was contrary to our purpose of bringing down the President." (Later still, in confirming that leak to the Hartford Courant, she remarked that her work with Conway and his colleagues had amounted to "a small, intricately knit right-wing conspiracy -- and I'd like that clarified.")

Coulter claims that she helped Conway and Marcus with legal research in the Jones case, but according to Gil Davis neither he nor Cammarata ever heard of her while they were working on the lawsuit. Both felt that there was no permissible reason for any of the attorneys to have revealed confidential information to Coulter.

In addition to Coulter's boasting, there is documentary evidence that Conway operated in such a way as to frustrate a settlement-even after Davis and Cammarata had resigned from the case. On October 8, 1997, Conway sent a long E-mail message via America Online to Matt Drudge.

"Subject: Your Next Exclusive" is the caption on that message. "Remember me?" it begins. "I'm Laura's friend. We talked once about Kathleen Willey ... This is being given to you, of course, subject to your not disclosing the source." (Conway forwarded the same message to Ingraham the following day.)

The main topic of the October 8 message was not Willey but the "distinguishing characteristic," a matter nearly as sensitive as the Willey allegations. Like Coulter, Conway must have realized that with the leak of its details to Drudge, any further settlement negotiations could again be disrupted.

Davis certainly thought so. "Conway's leaking of this stuff certainly jeopardized a settlement," said Davis after examining the Drudge E-mail in 1999. "I had no concept, no idea that they did or would do such a thing [as to leak Willey's name]."

With his exclusive blown by Drudge, Isikoff moved fast to capitalize on his inside information about the Willey matter. Her lawyer Gecker told him to forget about Willey going on the record, and added that it was "a horrible injustice and invasion of privacy" for the press to explore his client's personal life. Worse still, when Julie Steele returned Isikoff's call on the morning of July 31, she administered a crippling blow to her friend's credibility. According to her sworn affidavit in a lawsuit she filed in 1999 against Newsweek and Isikoff, Steele told the reporter that Willey had asked her to lie about the alleged incident when he first interviewed them both in March 1997. In truth, Willey hadn't "mentioned her so-called encounter with the President in the White House on the day that it had allegedly occurred or at any other time." She apologized to Isikoff for lying and said she didn't want him to have "egg on his face" for publishing her friend's phony story.

Steele contended that he called her back in the afternoon, telling her that their morning interview was going into his story with quotes from her. That stunned Steele, she later said, because he had agreed earlier that their conversation was "off the record." She recalled Isikoff explaining that "there's so much pressure to get this out ... I have to do it." (Isikoff and Newsweek have denied he ever agreed not to quote Steele.)

The following day, Isikoff contacted Tripp to get her version on the record. Meeting in a coffee shop, she told the reporter he could quote her saying that when she ran into Willey that day in the White House, the Richmond widow was "disheveled. Her face was red and her lipstick was off. She was flustered, happy and joyful." She also wanted Isikoff to state that she had come forward "to make it clear that this was not a case of sexual harassment."

Bob Bennett, who had been trying without success to speak with Tripp, wasn't grateful to her for making that distinction. Denying that Clinton did anything "improper" with Willey, he declared that Tripp "is not to be believed."

Isikoff's story, "A Twist in Jones v. Clinton," appeared in the edition of Newsweek dated August 11, which actually came out on August 4. It plumbed the "complicated and murky" background of Willey's accusations, her marriage, and her tenure in the White House. It presented Steele's confirmation and recantation. (However, the Newsweek version is different from the version in Uncovering Clinton. In Newsweek, Steele was said to have admitted actually hearing about the incident from Willey "weeks after it happened." That detail is excised from Isikoff's book.) But what Isikoff omitted entirely from his story were Tripp's allegations that Kathleen Willey was conniving to seduce the president. Almost two years later in his book, Isikoff drops his mask of neutrality long enough to suggest a reason. He states clearly, more than once, that he believes Willey-in part because of an anonymous phone call he got from another woman who told him a similar story about being groped by Clinton.

Linda Tripp was frightened and angered by Bennett's cutting remark about her, taking it as a veiled warning that she could lose her Pentagon job. (Some of her friends felt she was also excited by the attention focused on her in Newsweek.) Tripp's fury in turn scared Monica Lewinsky, who worried that her friend would someday make good on a muttered threat to "write a tell-all book" about the Clinton White House. Linda would never reveal her relationship with the president, would she? Lewinsky asked. "Of course not," Tripp replied. Together, they decided that Tripp should send a letter to the magazine correcting any impression that she was a disloyal employee.

That letter, which Tripp allowed both Lewinsky and Isikoff to edit, noted that the reporter had showed up in her office uninvited by her. "I was compelled to respond when he asserted that Ms. Willey had given him my name as a purported contemporaneous witness who could corroborate her new claim of 'harassment' or 'inappropriate behavior' on the part of the president." That charge was "completely inaccurate," she wrote. Moreover, "her version in 1993 and her version in 1997 were wholly inconsistent." As for "the comment made by the president's attorney about me, which appeared in the same article, I am acutely disappointed that my integrity has been questioned."

The letter didn't run, and Isikoff later dismissed it as "quibbling." Certainly it would have amplified questions and facts about Willey that Newsweek had chosen to downplay. And what no one seemed to notice then was the letter's blunt confirmation that this supposedly silent, reluctant witness had been guiding Isikoff all along. In addition to protecting Willey's fragile credibility, the suppression of Tripp's letter allowed the double game being played by the Richmond widow and her lawyer to continue. The uproar over Kathleen Willey eventually died down long enough for the lawyers on both sides of Jones v. Clinton to resume their negotiations. Within a couple of weeks, they had reached an understanding. If Jones would forgo an explicit apology, Clinton (or his legal fund and insurance policies) would pay her $700,000 -- the full amount her lawsuit had originally demanded. Furthermore, the defendant would issue a statement that she had engaged in no "sexual or improper conduct" at the Excelsior Hotel that day, and would express regret at the damage Jones had suffered to her character and reputation.

Not only did Davis and Cammarata regard this outcome as a "complete victory" on the merits for Jones, but they knew that the president never would offer a humbling statement along with the money. They also knew, as they indicated to her, that their client had a terribly weak case.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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By Gene Lyons

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

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