The congressman, the missing intern and the mother

As police prepare to grill Rep. Gary Condit about his relationship with Chandra Levy, are her mother's ever-changing stories simply evidence of confusion -- or a media-savvy attempt to smoke him out?

Published June 22, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

There might have been a brief period in recent weeks when Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., thought the scandal over missing intern Chandra Levy was finally beginning to wane, that he would be able to once again walk the corridors of the Capitol without being tailed by camera crews and reporters.

The reprieve lasted nearly a week, starting at the end of May. Newspapers began running redundant "Levy still missing" headlines. Whole stories were written about the Washington police department's third dog search for a possible body around the Capitol's swampy edges. Susan Levy, Chandra's mother, told a reporter that she wasn't ruling out the help of psychics and astrologers.

The story lost its luster. It had reached that critical point where, most professionals say, all hope of finding a missing person is essentially lost. "After a month's time, you have to think you're looking for a corpse," says Ron Jones, a case manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ironically, a center championed by Condit, who keeps a prominent link to the group from his home Web page). And the only connection with Condit was early innuendo by Levy's friends, mostly culled from e-mail, that he might have been far more than just the "good friend" to the 24-year-old intern he claimed to be.

Then, on June 7, the Washington Post reported that Levy had once, and possibly more than once, spent the night at Condit's, according to law enforcement officials. The story suddenly matured into a national scandal. And it exploded last week when Susan Levy, after more than a month of denying it, confirmed that her daughter had told her she had been seeing Condit romantically.

With that, the Levys moved center stage into their daughter's story, pulling Condit into the spotlight with them. This week they made headlines when they traveled to Washington, having hired attorney Billy Martin, the so-homespun-he's-slick D.C. celebrity lawyer, to pressure the D.C. police to upgrade their investigation into Levy's disappearance from a missing-person case to a criminal one -- just as police spokesmen had been telling the press they were planning to devote less energy to it. The Levys even reportedly secured a face-to-face meeting with Condit Thursday night, apparently getting to him before police, which had been trying to meet with the congressman for a follow-up interview for 10 days.

The Levys' hiring of Martin, who represented Monica Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, during the Ken Starr investigation, closed the circle on the quirky parallels with the Lewinsky case. Both interns were bright, curvy, California Jewish girls in their early 20s with big hair and big smiles for the camera in all the photographs we've seen of them. The intersection of sex, politics and scandal was already steamy enough; Levy's possible abduction or murder made the story irresistible to tabloid and highbrow media alike. From the Washington Post and Slate to Talk and "Inside Edition," reporters have flocked to the story, hungry for dirt and detail.

And the Levys have made sure their hunger has been duly fed. The couple -- Susan Levy, in particular -- have been enterprising media brokers who have shrewdly or desperately (or both) fed the scandal ever since Susan appeared on "Good Morning America" May 14 to proclaim that "we're going national with this," and launched a media campaign that saw her appear every few days on national TV for the better part of a month and a half. Their inexperience has been apparent. Susan Levy has now changed her own stories so often that her word has come to seem like a work in progress, as she denies a story about her daughter on TV one evening while a newspaper quotes her corroborating it the very next morning.

But the strategy has worked. Even as Martin claimed the Levys were "trying to go on with their lives" and care for their "other children" as he handled the case, their only other child, Adam, was appearing intermittently throughout the day Thursday on MSNBC in a taped interview, another Levy family exclusive.

The Thursday press conference was the latest offering; Martin switched tactics, and calmly urged Condit to come forward with any information he had. He released a toll-free number (800-860-6552) and a Web site (which, Wednesday night, still linked only to Martin's law firm, Dyer, Ellis & Joseph). Within a few hours, Condit was quoted in one of his own press releases for the first time in a month and a half, saying, "Anyone who saw Dr. and Mrs. Levy today at their press conference cannot help but feel their deep concern and worry," and promising, ''If there is any new information I can provide, I will do so without hesitation."

Martin's stolid demeanor comes at a crucial moment for the Levys, whose fraying media campaign has started to cause more confusion than attention. It's hard to fault desperate parents for doing whatever they can to find their missing child. But the Levys' strategy has been hard to read. In one way, they've simply seemed like devastated parents, urging the police to look harder for their child. Lately they've appeared to be running a dueling media campaign to that of Condit, who has tried desperately to stick to a strategy of silence.

The Levys may be irrationally, though understandably, flailing around; or they may be intentionally trying to turn up the heat on Condit, never coming right out and saying that he had something to do with their daughter's disappearance, and likely murder, but creating so much suspicion about his activities and distrust of his denials that attention is now focused not only on whether Condit was Levy's lover but on whether he's hiding something else. Daily, the police department is asked whether Condit is a subject of its investigation into Levy's disappearance, which so far it denies.

Thanks to the Levys, that question isn't going to go away anytime soon.

Susan Levy has, in fact, told a lot of different stories to the media. She appeared on "Good Morning America" May 14, two weeks after Chandra disappeared, holding a toy duck good-luck charm and sitting with her daughter Chandra's good friend Jennifer Baker, who, it was later revealed, was also an intern in Condit's office.

At this point, while Condit had offered $10,000 to help find his "good friend," no one was romantically linking his name to Levy directly. "GMA" host Diane Sawyer asked only about "a mysterious boyfriend in politics" who had been mentioned in an e-mail from Levy to a friend, and reported in the Levys' hometown paper, the Modesto Bee. "I do know that she had mentioned to me that she had a boyfriend in November," Susan Levy said. "Actually, I don't know of any particular boyfriend," she said. "But she's a young lady and knows a lot of different people. And that's all I can say."

Two days later, Baker was quoted in the Washington Post saying that Levy had told her she had a boyfriend in the FBI, but that the two never spoke in any greater detail about him. A day later, Susan Levy told reporters that she was unaware of any relationship between her daughter and Condit, while Condit's chief of staff told the Post that a relationship "totally did not occur."

By that point, the Levys had hooked up with the Sund/Carrington Foundation, a local group formed in the memory of three women who were abducted and murdered near Yosemite National Park two years ago. The group's executive director, Kim Peterson, became a ubiquitous presence, part media coach and media coordinator. ("We have the Washington Post at 6:30 p.m., 'Dateline' at 8 and someone else at 9," she boasted to a reporter May 18.) She also, say reporters who have interviewed the Levys, would step in when they pressed too hard for details.

The Modesto Bee broke the news May 18 that Levy had e-mailed a friend that "my man will be coming back here when Congress starts up again. I'm looking forward to seeing him." In the same e-mail, she admits to lying to another friend that her boyfriend was in the FBI "so she wouldn't ask questions." (That friend turned out to be Baker, the Condit aide, who had told reporters that Levy had told her she was dating someone in the FBI, and has nary been heard from since.) Susan Levy reacted by saying, "It's not a comforting thing to hear these stories. It makes me feel nervous."

After the Post broke the news that Levy had slept over at Condit's apartment, Condit's own bizarre mishandling of the situation, with uncoordinated messages coming from both his chief of staff, Lynch, and new lawyer, Joseph Cotchett, guaranteed sustained coverage. Increasingly, while Cotchett blanketed media organizations with letters warning them about reporting that Levy had spent the night at Condit's home, his denials were parsed -- he said Condit never told law enforcement officials about a Levy overnight, not that one never occurred -- and succeeded in raising questions about Condit's relationship with Levy, not dispelling them.

Never shrinking from view was Susan Levy, whose rhetoric toward her local congressman was slowly beginning to heat up. During an interview June 11 with Fox's Bill O'Reilly, she answered the question of whether she knew Condit by saying, "Well, all I can say is that Gary Condit said we -- we're -- he's friends of our family. And I could only say that I never met the man."

But she still was unwilling to tell everything she knew. After the Post quoted an unnamed Levy relative saying that Condit's denials did not correlate with what Chandra Levy had previously told the relative, reporters asked Susan Levy to comment. Levy confirmed the unnamed relative's doubts about Condit's denials, which was quite reasonably construed by reporters to mean that Levy was confirming her daughter had been involved with Condit.

But when questioned by Fox's Paula Zahn on June 14, she denied that's what she was doing. "No, no, I did not confirm. I said that a relative may be right about what she's reporting, but I did not confirm in the sense of they're saying that indeed I'm admitting that she had an affair with anyone."

Got that? "So it was like misconstrued," she continued. "And immediately, they ... are saying that Mrs. Levy confirms that, yes, indeed her daughter definitely had an affair with Gary Condit, as if I had spoken that way. Well, it was nothing that I said."

But a day later, that was exactly what she was saying. She finally told the Post that, having learned from a relative the details of her daughter's relationship with Condit, she had asked Chandra about it in April. "When I asked her that," according to Levy, "Chandra said, 'How did you know?'"

The Levys also released a home video last week, reportedly made last December, which captures Levy's father, Robert, joking that "[Chandra] told us all about her adventures in D.C., the Bureau of Prisons, and her congressman friend," which would suggest they knew something about the relationship before April.

Levy also recently described how, after getting hold of Chandra's cellphone records in late May and after seeing about 20 calls to the same number, she dialed it and "listened to the soft music and instructions to punch in her number. When she did, she says, she wasn't surprised that California Representative Gary Condit phoned back," according to Time magazine this week.

In the Time story, presumably filed last Friday, Susan Levy recounted that she merely had an awkward exchange with Condit, and then hung up. But on Tuesday she told the Washington Post that she actually confronted Condit at the time, asking him if he was having an affair with her daughter, which he denied.

And before both the Time and Post stories appeared, Levy had always insisted to reporters that she had not spoken to Condit since May 6, when she complained that the D.C. police were not working fast enough.

Of course, it's perfectly understandable that a mother would want to keep the world from knowing that her daughter was having an adulterous affair with a politician. And it's difficult to be critical of Susan Levy for her evolving stories, since she's presumably motivated by what she believes is in her daughter's best interest. She will clearly say or do anything to keep the pressure on the police, and now on Condit, to help solve the case.

But despite the increased heat on Condit and the police, thanks to the repeated misinformation coming from all quarters, we may still be a long way away from learning the true story of what has happened to Chandra Levy.

By Kerry Lauerman

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