It was the morning of Oct. 10, 1991, and Terry Wooten, the senior counsel to the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, was one of eight Senate staffers deposing Angela Wright over the telephone after she joined law professor Anita Hill in making allegations against their former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
"Now, the term 'boobs' came up," Wooten asked Wright. "Is that a term that he used when he spoke to you?"
"No, actually that is a term that I am using," Wright replied. "Actually, what he said was, 'What size are your breasts?'" The question came up, she said, while they were attending a seminar for the EEOC.
A decade after the grisly Thomas confirmation circus, Wooten is coming under scrutiny as a federal judge nominee for the U.S. District Court in South Carolina. And his chief accuser is onetime right-wing reporter David Brock, who claims that not only was Wooten busily trying to discredit Wright as a committee lawyer, but to reporters as well -- slipping Wright's FBI files to Brock, who was at work on his 1993 book "The Real Anita Hill."
But while Wooten called Brock's charges "absolutely 100 percent not true" during a Senate hearing this week, and Senate Democratic sources confide that the controversial Brock has enough credibility problems to keep his charges from sticking, Brock is standing by his story and welcomes an investigation into the matter.
In fact, he tells Salon that he's willing to open his files to the Judiciary Committee -- if anyone on the committee, that is, would call him. If the FBI file is there, it's conceivable, he allows, that Wooten's fingerprints could be on it, which may help settle the issue once and for all.
Wooten, like other nominees before him, will not talk to the press before a confirmation vote. The Justice Department did not return a call for comment.
Whether or not the Judiciary Committee decides to take Brock up on his offer or not, Wooten's role in the Thomas confirmation hearings -- the modern TV scandal spectacle that all others, from O.J. to Monica to Chandra, followed -- is surely worth consideration. It's certainly not unprecedented to require former political operatives, even ones with J.D.'s, to answer questions about their various partisan machinations before they assume positions of judicial prominence.
Such was the case in the solicitor-general nomination of conservative attorney Ted Olson, who played some (though murky) role in the American Spectator magazine's war against all things Clinton (even penning under a pseudonym the article "Criminal Laws Implicated by the Clinton Scandals: A Partial List," February 1994). The solicitor general job, meanwhile, supposedly has the grandiose purpose once described as "not to achieve victory, but to establish justice."
During the Thomas scandal, Wooten and Brock were clearly both pursuing victory, not justice. Brock was the Spectator's star reporter, and was all about kicking ass for the GOP, he says now. Wooten, he says, was a big help.
"During the course of my research, I met with Mr. Terry Wooten in a Capitol Hill office," Brock wrote in an affidavit he faxed Aug. 24 to Judiciary Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. "Mr. Wooten handed me copies of several pages of Ms. Wright's raw FBI files. This material included FBI interviews of Ms. Wright's former employers and former co-workers. With Mr. Wooten's agreement, I removed the FBI material from his office." In his book "The Real Anita Hill," Brock makes references to "an FBI file" in which Wright is referred to as "vengeful, angry and immature."
Asked by Leahy if he gave confidential FBI material to Brock, as alleged both in Brock's affidavit and in a story in the Los Angeles Times, Wooten forcefully asserted "that allegation is absolutely, 100 percent untrue. There is not one scintilla or one iota of truth to that allegation."
But the question now has less to do with which person the committee believes -- the imperfect whistleblower Brock, or Wooten, currently a magistrate judge in Florence, S.C.-- than whether or not they'll take Brock's dare, and try to make sure, beyond any measure of doubt, that Wooten wasn't involved in a dirty tricks campaign against Wright.
To many who followed the Thomas confirmation hearings, Angela Wright seemed as though she might have been the woman who ultimately could have sunk Thomas' nomination. That was certainly a concern of Wooten's.
Anita Hill, who had worked under Thomas at both the EEOC and the Department of Education, had been telling the Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out and, after being rebuffed, began to "use work situations to discuss sex."
As she later testified, despite her consistent protestations that such talk made her uncomfortable, Thomas continued to talk about sex, from graphic pornographic films to tales of "his own sexual prowess."
"I began to be concerned that Clarence Thomas might take out his anger with me by degrading me or not giving me important assignments," she testified. "I also thought that he might find an excuse for dismissing me."
On Oct. 11, 1991, Thomas, infuriated, "categorically denied all of the allegations and denied that I ever attempted to date Anita Hill," saying, "our relationship remained both cordial and professional."
"He said/she said" is one thing. "He said/they said" is something else entirely. Wooten recognized the problem posed by Wright, who had never met Anita Hill and who told the committee that Thomas fired her after years of hitting on her and making inappropriate comments to her. As Biden told Thomas during the hearing, "If there's not a pattern, to me, that's probative," or legally significant.
"Any time you had a second allegation, it was going to be a big problem," Wooten later told Mayer and Abramson.
During Wright's Oct. 10 deposition, Wooten took a somewhat aggressive tone with her, six times referring to her as having "come forward," as if politically motivated and eager to enter the fray, when in fact she'd been subpoenaed by the committee.
"I am sorry, Terry," she told Wooten at one point, "but I cannot answer, I cannot answer the questions if you are going to insist that I decided to 'come forward.' Obviously I did not come forward with anything. I am just answering questions that are just being asked of me."
Even after that point is made, however, Wooten continued to use the term. After Wright informed the Senate staffers that a friend of hers exists whom she had contemporaneously informed of Thomas' allegedly harassing behavior, Wooten said, "I think it may be helpful if you would check with that friend to see if he or she is willing to come forward."
"I will be glad to do that," Wright said. "But you keep using the term 'come forward.' I can pretty much assure you that this person is not going to 'come forward' or want to be very involved in this at all."
Wright ultimately told them how Thomas would "consistently pressure me to date him," how he hit on other women in the office, how he "made comments about my anatomy [and] ... about women's anatomy quite often," and how "at one point, Clarence Thomas came by my apartment at night, unannounced and uninvited."
Then, Wooten asked Wright about other employers with whom she's had a problem, citing the name of a former Wright boss whom Wright accused of racism. He then asked Wright, a registered Republican, "who you voted for in the '80, '84 and '88," a question she doesn't answer.
Wright was hardly a perfect witness, having been fired by Thomas six years beforehand for being "ineffective" and, Thomas claimed, for calling a fellow employee a "faggot," which Wright denied. Then-Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., later told the Washington Post that he was ready to put Wright through the wringer she wanted to put Thomas through. "I felt that when you are assassinating someone's character, you bring your own to the fore," Simpson said. "All I know is that if she wanted to expose herself to the committee with damaging information about Clarence Thomas ... I was fully ready to damage her character in the process."
In the end, curiously and to this day without a clear explanation, Wright was never called to testify before the Senate. Thus, a vast majority of the Senate remained ignorant of her story when Thomas was confirmed on Oct. 15. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., a member of the committee, told the Washington Post in 1994 that he had no idea Wright existed to offer a similar story to Hill's. Had she been permitted to testify, Simon said, she "could have toppled Thomas."
It is unclear what role Wooten played in keeping Wright from the microphone, but it clearly was not in Thomas' best interest to have her testify. And, Wooten has said, he did his part to keep her story under wraps. In an interview for the book "Strange Justice," by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, Wooten allowed that he even kept Hill's charges -- which had been privately divulged to the Senate Judiciary Committee staffers in August and September 1991 -- from his then-boss Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., as well as from other Republicans on the committee.
"Washington is the rumor mill of the world," he told them. "It didn't look like it was going to develop into any big deal. There was an effort to control the damage."
Wooten has admitted to the Judiciary Committee that he had a brief conversation with Brock after Thomas had been confirmed on Oct. 15. "Whether or not [Wright's] name came up, I can't say that it did or didn't," Wooten said. But if it did, "there was no confidential information that was released or that was made available to him." He had access to the confidential materials about Wright from both FBI and Judiciary Committee files, but it was information he only discussed with his boss, Thurmond, and a committee investigator, Duke Short.
Leahy based his questions on the Times story, since at the time of the hearing he hadn't yet even seen Brock's affidavit. Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Leahy seemed to imply that, barring any new information, the "he said/he said" would culminate in a Wooten confirmation. "Mr. Wooten is under oath and he understands very well the importance of being accurate," Leahy said. "I can't believe that he would lie before the committee."
Brock disagrees, and thinks the committee should investigate. "The issue is obviously resolvable by the committee if it wants to resolve it," Brock tells Salon. "One of us has already committed perjury." Brock says that the dispute "doesn't have to remain 'he said/he said.' In the context of some kind of investigation there are potential witnesses and potential evidence."
Such as? Brock says his lawyers have 10 to 12 boxes of material from his days with the American Spectator. If Wright's FBI file is there, and Brock is telling the truth, Wooten's fingerprints could at least lend his story some credence.
But the Judiciary Committee has yet to contact Brock. When the Senate reconvenes on Tuesday, Leahy and Hatch will confer and decide how to proceed with the Wooten nomination, says Leahy spokesman David Carle.
Established procedures on the committee would have the chief investigators for both the Democrats and the Republicans working together to get to the bottom of the charges, but Hatch and Leahy would have to agree to such cooperation. In May, before the Senate fell into Democratic hands, then-Chairman Hatch declined to invoke those procedures when Brock raised questions about the role played by Olson in the Spectator's "Arkansas Project," a multi-year, multimillion-dollar investigation into the lives of the Clintons. Despite serious questions about how forthcoming Olson was being before the Senate, he was confirmed on May 25 on a 51-47 vote.
Senate insiders predict a similar result with the Wooten nomination. It's not that members of the Judiciary Committee don't take Brock's charges seriously, a Senate Democratic source told Salon. But those who believe Anita Hill shouldn't get their hopes up for a showdown. There doesn't appear to be any evidence or witness who can corroborate Brock's story, the source says, apparently unaware that Brock believes he may have some evidence locked away with his lawyers.
But so far, only the liberal Alliance for Justice has issued any sort of public position against Wooten, saying in a statement that he's "been accused of a serious ethical impropriety" and calling for the "committee's bipartisan investigative staff (to) ... fully look into these charges before deciding whether to confirm Judge Wooten."
Moreover, the Senate source says, the credibility of the contradictory witnesses is at play. Wooten is a judge whom many of the committee members remember from when he worked as chief GOP counsel on the committee. Brock, on the other hand, has since renounced his political alliances and admitted lying in some of his past reporting.
In the August Talk magazine excerpt of his forthcoming book "Blinded by the Right," Brock wrote that he "lost my soul" printing things he knew to be untrue, both in favor of Thomas and against Hill, her collaborating witnesses and the rival book, "Strange Justice," by Mayer and Abramson. He also detailed his 1994 intimidation of Kaye Savage, a woman who'd supported Hill and her story, meeting her armed with "unverified embarrassing personal information ... that Thomas claimed had been raised against her in a divorce proceeding." Brock claimed he'd gotten the information from Thomas through an intermediary, former White House assistant counsel Mark Paoletta. "Thomas was playing dirty, and so was I," Brock wrote.
But Abramson, the New York Times Washington bureau chief, is quoted in the Washington Post as pointing out that the "problem with Brock's credibility" is that "once you admit you've knowingly written false things, how do you know when to believe what he writes?" Paoletta, now counsel to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has denied Brock's charges, while Thomas has refused comment.
The Bush administration has already begun to assault Brock's credibility. In the Los Angeles Times story, Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker ascribed fiduciary motives to Brock's allegation. "I think it would be unfortunate if the desire for book sales promulgated a charge involving a man's integrity, such as this might," Tucker said.
Brock insists that "the Wooten thing has no connection to any kind of book publication strategy." Still uncompleted, his book has been pushed back until November at the earliest and more likely January 2002, he says, and "the only relationship at all between Wooten and the book is in the process of writing the book obviously I've revisited this issue. The fact that Wooten was nominated to a judgeship is just a coincidence."
What about the fact that the Los Angeles Times apparently knew about Brock's affidavit long before Leahy did? Brock says that reporter David Savage had been contacting him for days, not the other way around, which Savage confirms. Brock hadn't been paying attention to Wooten's nomination, he says, until Savage -- informed by a third party that Brock had said Wooten had leaked him Wright's FBI file -- contacted him. After speaking to Savage, Brock faxed his affidavit to Leahy's Senate office late Friday, after 6:50 p.m. Leahy didn't receive the affidavit until after the Monday hearing.
Does there exist evidence in those files to prove Brock right and Wooten wrong? That remains to be answered, as do questions about how willing Leahy and the Senate Democrats are to engage in a confirmation fight.