Richmonder Julie Hiatt Steele tries to make sense of the independent counsel who ruined her, the city that turned its back on her, and how to explain it all to Adam.
The Other Woman
Julie Hiatt Steele can't stop talking. Just can't. It's really very annoying. You're sitting in her kitchen, petting the cat, listening patiently as she ejects another rapid-fire barrage of mostly unverifiable minutiae about her prosecution "persecution" for refusing to lie and help Ken Starr get President Clinton. It was bad enough on the phone, this talking. But now you're trapped in her house, waiting for the coffee she promised 20 minutes ago, waiting for her to light the Virginia Slim she's still waving about, waiting for anything that will jam the ammo clip of half-sentences and quarter-thoughts with which Steele riddles your mind: Kathleen Willey. Newsweek. Affidavits. The FBI. Indictments. Alice in Wonderland. KenStarrKenStarrKenStarr. At some point it stops. Steele smiles and her lovely eyes are kind again. You won't be rude. Short, slight, and concentration-camp thin at 52, somehow she's still beautiful behind her cheap eyeglasses. You'll stay a little longer, give her another chance. The coffee comes. The cigarette glows. Steele knows she overdoes it sometimes with her fusillades of detailed, cross-referenced and yet utterly unintelligible outrage. But the talking is one of the few ways she can release the anger, indignation and hurt that Larry King didn't have time for, that her lawyers decided not to present at her trial on four counts of obstructing justice. It's how she tries to make sense of her life now, finally restarting after two years in a prison of legal intimidation, personal alienation and financial ruin, a prison where Ken Starr was the warden, the parole board and the Supreme Court. It's how she copes with having been the other woman, the one who really stood between him and Bill Clinton. The house is just right: warm and comfortable, white with deep-green shutters, a kind of secret kept from the few neighbors and the rest of the world by thick woods and the long black driveway that winds through them. It's taken her 21 years to get it this way, most of them as the divorcee of an oil industry exec her childhood sweetheart and the mother of two grown daughters. The Kentucky natives arrived in 1978 after innumerable transfers led them to Richmond, where Steele kept busy with the girls, volunteer work and jobs in "sales and marketing: cell phones, anything, you name it." This house wasn't their first choice. Ed and Kathleen Willey's was. The deal fell through, but Julie and Kathy stayed friends, stayed in touch. The years rolled on. They drifted in and out of each other's orbits. Tick tock. Then one day in early 1997 a bomb went off, the one that brought "60 Minutes" and White House counsel and Ken Starr's investigators to her door. The bomb also kept neighbors and long-time friends away, never to visit again. It was an unexpected phone call from Kathy Willey. Maybe you've heard the story. It's long and quite unhappy. The end of it is that Kathy says Clinton groped her; Julie says it's a lie she wishes she hadn't helped Kathy perpetuate. She said, she said. At the time, Ken Starr was not amused. Willey, a Democrat, might get him a criminal indictment against the president for lying under oath in his unequivocal denial of their alleged encounter. Maybe even turn the tide in the impeachment hearings. But Starr needed Steele, a credible, apolitical, upper-middle-class grandmother from Richmond, Va., to back it up. He went for it, and leaned on Steele. Hard. Here's what's left: Julie Hiatt Steele, trying to reassemble, brick by brick, the rubble of her life. She does it with a Web site, dozens of three-ring binders, thousands of documents, including some she probably shouldn't have, and the talking. Mostly she does it here, in the house, the one thing she was able to rely on as the rest of her world crumbled: the job she lost. The sister who suffered medical problems from the stress. The friends who stopped returning her calls. Starr's city-wide strip search for the dirt on Julie Hiatt Steele. In 1990, Julie Hiatt Steele's four-day-old infant son died. Later that year, she traveled to Romania and adopted 10-week-old Adam. Waiting outside for him to arrive home from school, Steele points out the funny little garden where Adam grows hot peppers. Then her head swivels back to the house. "Isn't it a great house?" she says. There's no hint in her voice of the fact that she's got three months to sell it. You either believe Julie Hiatt Steele, or you don't. Ultimately it comes down to your gut. You can't prove Adam doesn't get invited to birthday parties. You can't prove Steele has upwards of $1 million in debt from legal fees and lost income. (The D.C. firm that defended her says while there are $75,000 in expenses it would like reimbursed, it does not expect Steele to pay the $800,000 in fees, but she insists on doing it.) You can't prove most of the things Steele says about how Starr orchestrated a campaign to frighten and embarrass and fatigue her into lying for him. You can't prove she's not in here all day working on a book, living off the advance. But you end up believing what Julie Hiatt Steele tells you. You don't know why, you just do. Enough jurors at her May trial in Alexandria did; the judge declared a mistrial after they became "hopelessly deadlocked," and Starr dropped the charges a few weeks later. Technically she won, but felt she still didn't get her full day in court: Steele agrees now with her lawyers' strategy in not presenting a defense, which would have hurt more innocent people, she says, but it wasn't until Sept. 23 that she got to tell the world her tale in her own words. For Steele, they were remarkably concise, coherent, cogent, compelling. They came during House subcommittee hearings on what to do about the independent counsel statute. The members nodded and smiled, frowned and shook their heads, thanked her for testifying. And of all the people and all the players in the White House sex scandals that kept Ken Starr going, the only person ever charged with a crime went home, and
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