February 13, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


Suing the President 

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Part 2: Kathleen Willey

For years a consciously low-key figure in the Clinton scandal, Richmond's Kathleen Willey has emerged from her quiet home in Powhatan with a book, a movie appearance and a warning for Barack Obama. She's telling her story, she says, as a cautionary tale for voters who may be considering Hillary Clinton.

On a winter day 10 years ago, while he was leaving his Charlottesville home to run weekend errands, John Whitehead suspected something was amiss.

"There were these guys in skinny ties and white shirts in a black van, looking me right in the eye," he says.

It had been three months since Whitehead had agreed to take the case of Paula Jones, an Arkansas woman who was suing President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, and in that time the world's media had been watching Whitehead and his office at the Rutherford Institute, his Charlottesville-based civil liberties law organization.

But now he realized a more clandestine adversary was following his every move. The following Monday, he hired a former National Security Agency surveillance expert to inspect his office and confirm what he had already guessed.

"The whole office was bugged," Whitehead says. "I told [the surveillance expert] about the van, and he told me that if I saw them, they wanted me to see them and that it was meant to intimidate me."

"I just thought, 'How stupid,'" says Whitehead, 61, who claims he remained unfazed.

His resolve was tested time and again in the following months -- particularly when his motives were questioned — but Whitehead remained defiant on behalf of his client, even if his opponent was the president of the United States. Such an attitude seemed entirely appropriate for a man whose father loved Westerns about hard-bitten men fighting for justice so much that he named his son John Wayne Whitehead.

This was not the first time Whitehead had crossed paths with his legal foe.

In 1974, nearly two decades before he was sworn in as the 42nd president, 28-year-old Bill Clinton was grooming himself for greatness, moving from the small town of Hope, Ark., to receive his bachelor's degree from Georgetown and enter Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

Clinton had just received his law degree from Yale and was fresh from the trenches of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern's presidential campaign when he arrived in Fayetteville to become an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law. He was already contemplating a run for Congress.

That's when The Grapevine, an underground campus newspaper, sent a long-haired 28-year-old law student to interview Clinton. The student's name was John Wayne Whitehead.

"I was suspicious of [Clinton] because I was a young radical, and he was a politician," Whitehead recalls, "but we met in a bar and had a beer or two. I thought he was a little goofy with that laugh of his, but a nice, congenial guy."

Clinton already had a reputation as a ladies' man. "Working at the newspaper, I'd heard rumors that he'd been sleeping with students while he was engaged," Whitehead says, "but there was a lot of that going on, and besides, I thought, 'Who cares?'"

Whitehead had taken a decidedly different path to that point. Like Clinton, he'd been born in a small Southern town in the summer of 1946, but unlike Clinton, he had no political ambition. By the time he bellied up to the bar with the would-be congressional candidate, Whitehead had bounced around from undergraduate study at the University of Arkansas to the Army to becoming a full-fledged, pot-smoking, acid-dropping hippie lawyer-in-training.

Whitehead says the relatively straight-laced Clinton immediately took notice and began to ingratiate himself with his interviewer.

"He told me, 'You know, I think they should legalize heroin,'" Whitehead says. "I thought, 'He can't possibly mean that.' I knew he had looked at my long hair and my Army jacket and thought I was the sort of person who would support that idea."

Still, for all his skepticism, Whitehead was not immune to the trademark Clinton charm.

"He has a way of looking at you and making you feel like you're the most important person in the world," Whitehead says. "We talked about the different periods of Bob Dylan, about McGovern. And it worked. I probably went too soft on him."

In particular, Whitehead was so taken with Clinton over the course of their meetings at the bar and in Clinton's house that he was willing to do a favor before the article's publication.

"He called me up and asked me to take out the heroin comment, so I did," Whitehead says. "I sometimes think about what a political killer that would have been if I had left it in. It probably would have haunted him the rest of his career."

Nevertheless, when The Grapevine published Whitehead's article Feb. 13, 1974, there was one haunting quote. With President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal pointing toward his resignation later that year, Whitehead had asked Clinton what constitutes an impeachable offense.

"I think that the definition should include any criminal acts, plus a willful failure of the president to fulfill his duty to uphold and execute the laws of the United States," Clinton said before adding, "The third factor that I think constitutes an impeachable offense would be willful, reckless behavior in office."

Clinton ended up losing his congressional bid, and in 1982 Whitehead went on to found what quickly became one of America's leading law clinics dedicated to supporting religious freedom.

He looks nothing like a buttoned-up member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. In a recent interview he wears a sweatshirt, jeans and sandals, and he's surrounded in his office by various works of art he's painted, posters featuring the likes of Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols, and such desk doodads as little green plastic army men and a Buzz Lightyear action figure.

Whitehead made a name for himself and the Rutherford Institute by accepting freedom of religion cases — pro bono. He took the case of Native Americans wanting to pray with feathers from endangered birds and that of a high-schooler suing for the right to mention Jesus in a valedictory speech.

In 1993 Whitehead even tried to reach David Koresh while the messianic leader was holed up during his fatal last stand at the Branch Davidian cult compound in Waco, Texas. In the middle of the standoff with federal agents, Whitehead wanted to tell Koresh that he would be willing to sue the government on his behalf.

But by 1997, the Rutherford Institute had begun to change. No longer confining himself to freedom of religion cases, Whitehead was refocusing the institute on civil rights issues. In one case of an HIV-positive youngster dismissed from a martial arts class, Whitehead sued to have him readmitted.

Whitehead says during those years he had not been closely following the travails of his former Arkansas interview subject, but much of America had.

Paula Jones was a low-level state employee when she was infuriated by a 1993 article about "Troopergate," Clinton's penchant for using Arkansas state troopers to facilitate his trysts. Described erroneously in The American Spectator as one of Clinton's conquests, Jones decided the following year to clear her name by suing Clinton for sexual harassment. In May 1997, despite Clinton's petition for a delay, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the lawsuit could move forward.

A short article in the Washington Post Sept. 9, 1997, caught Whitehead's eye.

"It was just a small blurb saying that Paula Jones' attorneys had dropped her case," Whitehead recalls from his office just off Hydraulic Road, a nondescript thoroughfare off Route 29, Charlottesville's main drag. "At that point, the case was dead, so I came into the office and told my paralegal, 'See if you can find her.'"

When Whitehead finally got Jones on the phone, she related her story: While working at a Little Rock conference in 1991, she was led to a hotel room by an Arkansas trooper where she was cornered by then-Gov. Clinton, who exposed himself and then reminded Jones of his connection to her boss.

Whitehead needed only one reason to get involved. "I took her case because I believed her," he says.

Soon after that conversation, Whitehead met Jones in person in Little Rock. "She was this backwoodsy Arkansas housewife, but she shot from the hip," Whitehead recalls, "and she was smart."

Not everyone was so friendly. A story in the Washington Post's Style section talked of "another eruption" of "Mt. Bimbo." Later, after an old boyfriend sold photos to Penthouse magazine, journalist Andy Rooney blasted Jones as "the most unattractive woman ever to voluntarily take off her clothes in front of a camera."

And then there was James Carville, a Clinton adviser with an attack-dog reputation, who dismissed Jones' lawsuit by saying, "Drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there's no telling what you'll find."

Having had experience dealing with media, Whitehead knew his first job was to rehabilitate his client's image.

"The White House spin machine was on TV every night saying she was trailer trash," he says. "I knew she wasn't, and I knew that we had to be on TV every day to say so. She was nervous about going on TV, but I told her that all she had to do was tell the truth, because she had nothing to hide."

For Whitehead, that meant taking every possible media request for comment.

"I really don't like going on these fuss-fuss shows," he says, "but if you're on Chris Matthews every day, it makes a difference."

Sometimes he couldn't persuade his client that any press was good press.

"Vanity Fair was all ready to do a positive puff piece that was going to be good P.R. for Paula. The magazine had even bought me a nice tailored suit for the photo shoot. But I couldn't convince her husband, Steve," Whitehead says. "I did get to keep the suit, though."

Just as Jones struggled to cope with all the attention, so did her counsel.

"It was constant bombardment," Whitehead says. "Reporters from all over the world would call me at all hours. I remember at 4 a.m. … doing a remote broadcast from the Charlottesville airport for the 'Today' show and Matt Lauer saying, 'I feel sorry for you.' But you've got to stay aggressive."

The attention wasn't just from the media. "We got audited by the IRS," Whitehead says, "but we were financially clean. You have to be," he says, "to do what we do. The agent actually apologized for being sent."

Because of the high-profile nature of the case and the small size of the Rutherford Institute's staff, it fell to paralegal Ron Rissler to field and follow up on the scores of calls offering potentially corroborating evidence. Each week, the office received tips about other women from all over the world.

"Some tips were more credible than others," says Rissler, now working for a law firm in Charles Town, W.Va., "and some people just wanted to yell at us."

Rissler says he felt he was getting close to the truth on several occasions, but he always came up just short.

"We heard from everyone from a friend of a pilot on Air Force One, to a guy from the power company who had done work at Camp David, to a woman who worked for Clinton when he was lieutenant governor of Arkansas," he says. "They all had stories about Clinton and these women."

One call, however, stood out. Sitting at his desk at the institute in early October 1997, Rissler answered the phone to hear a soft-spoken, nervous, yet deliberate woman on the other end of the line.

"I'm hearing," said the voice, "that President Clinton had an affair with a young woman in her early 20s, with long dark hair. Named Monica."

The tipster refused to give Rissler her name or a phone number where she could be reached, but she said she would try to learn more. Rissler took the news to Whitehead, who was encouraged but skeptical.

"We used to get all kinds of crazy stuff," Whitehead says, "but this woman asked if we had obtained a list of White House employees. Still, Monica is a pretty common name."

A few weeks later, the nameless woman called again with a second key bit of information.

"Lewinsky," the anonymous caller said. "Monica Lewinsky."

"My adrenaline started pumping," Rissler says.

The caller said that, despite his advisers' protests, Clinton continued to bring Lewinsky back into the White House, even after her transfer to the Pentagon.

"She said that he had her snuck into the White House theater for a private screening of the movie 'Air Force One,'" Rissler says, "just the two of them. His inner circle was extremely upset with him."

Clinton was also, apparently, leaving a paper trail.

"She asked if we had subpoenaed the White House's phone records," Rissler says. "She'd heard that he had made several phone calls to her from the Oval Office between 1 and 4 a.m."

This was the break in the case Whitehead knew he needed for the Jones case. Someone who could corroborate improper contact with office underlings. "Once we had the last name, we knew we had something," Whitehead says. "Soon we put a private investigator on it, and we found her."

Lewinsky was rumored to be living in New York, but soon Whitehead learned she was still in Washington, living in the Watergate building.

By the end of 1997, Clinton and his high-powered legal team knew — because her name had been on the witness list for five weeks — that Lewinsky had been discovered by Whitehead and company. Rutherford Institute affiliate attorney Jim Fisher of Dallas took the infamous deposition that would nearly cost Clinton his job.

On Jan. 17, 1998, Fisher asked the president under oath, "Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?"

"No," Clinton replied.

"I think I used the term 'sexual affair,'" Fisher replied, "and so the record is completely clear: Have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit One, as modified by the Court?"

Clinton responded, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her."

Clinton had a long history of carefully worded denials. They included understatements like his famous post-Super Bowl, pre-election "60 Minutes" comment, "I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage," referring to an alleged 12-year-affair with singer Gennifer Flowers, about which he said, "That allegation is false."

Then there were outright dismissals from his lawyers. One of them, Bruce Lindsay, had said of Troopergate: "The allegations are ridiculous." Clinton attorney Robert Bennett blasted Jones' tale: "This event, plain and simple, didn't happen."

Yet, on this January day, Clinton finally recanted his "60 Minutes" claims. He said he had indeed had extramarital relations with Flowers — but only once, back in 1977.

Before the proceedings were over, Clinton managed to get in a shot at Whitehead.

"You all," he said to Fisher, "with the help of the Rutherford Institute, were going to call up every woman I'd ever talked to."

The next day, Matt Drudge reported on his "Drudge Report" Web site that Newsweek had found the former intern, too, and it wasn't long before the whole world knew the name Monica Lewinsky.

Five days after Clinton's deposition, Whitehead was awakened at 6 a.m. by a call from Donovan Campbell, Jones' Dallas-based co-counsel, with the news that they had a chance to depose Lewinsky in Washington the next day.

It didn't take long for word to reach D.C. media, and the next day, as Campbell and Whitehead awaited Lewinsky's arrival, Whitehead was reminded that this case was unlike any other he'd ever had.

"We were on the third story of this building," Whitehead recalls, "and we look out the window to see a crane with a camera looking in. As I closed the curtains, I thought, 'This is strange.'"

But Lewinsky never showed. Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright (a law school classmate of Whitehead's at the University of Arkansas) granted a motion by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and ruled that all Lewinsky matters were off-limits for the Jones case. With Lewinsky now the dominion of Congress and the Jones suit denied its star witness, Wright dismissed Jones' suit in April.

Two months later, Whitehead picked up Vanity Fair to find a smiling Lewinsky running across a beach. Recalling the sight today, Whitehead sighs, saying, "That could have been Paula."

Later that year, while preparing an appeal, Whitehead's team accused Clinton of having "distinguishing characteristics."

"It was important; it proved that [Jones] saw his drawers drop," Whitehead says. "I was in that deposition where she drew his leaning tower of penis. The look on [Robert] Bennett's face was great. It blew his mind. It proved she saw something that she couldn't make up."

The unconventional tactic pushed the president to offer Jones $850,000 to drop her appeal. Jones, who had dumped her pre-Rutherford attorneys for not securing an apology, figured at this point that Clinton's credibility was so compromised that she no longer needed an apology. Whitehead, as usual, wanted to fight on.

"If we had pressed on, more women would have come forward," Whitehead says, "and we would have either gotten a sitting president on the stand, or she would have gotten more money."

Press accounts list various women not named Hillary who shared bedsheets with Bill Clinton, including television star Elizabeth Ward Gracen and various women in and around Arkansas whose dalliances with the governor were facilitated by state troopers.

In November 1997, Whitehead's team hit upon much darker stories, stories quite different from tales of consensual contact. The legal team reached a Richmond woman named Kathleen Willey. The staunch Democrat, whose husband, lawyer Ed Willey, had committed suicide, told friends that Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office.

Unlike Jones, Willey couldn't be accused of overly friendly relations with right-wingers. A longtime party fundraiser, she'd refused to participate in the Jones case, instead wearing disguises and rolling up her car windows to avoid being served with a subpoena. Eventually Richmond Judge Robert Mehridge would order her to tell her story.

Another name that made its way to Rutherford headquarters was that of Arkansas retirement home operator Juanita Broaddrick. She'd told close friends that Bill Clinton had bitten her lip and raped her many years earlier at a conference. But, brushing aside the unwanted attention, Broaddrick responded to the institute's subpoena with an affidavit denying knowledge of anything improper regarding Clinton.

Starr later subpoenaed these records, and Broaddrick came forward to say that she lied when she denied. In early 1999, NBC and the Wall Street Journal reported the allegations. But by then the story had fizzled — the statute of limitations had run out — and the Senate, just one month earlier, had voted Clinton not guilty on impeachment charges.

Writing in "Their Lives," a 2005 book about the women "targeted by the Clinton machine," author Candice Jackson claims that Clinton's public support for women's issues — and his pro-choice stance on abortion, in particular — helped blunt much criticism that might otherwise have been expected from feminist leaders. As Clinton's ousted political adviser Dick Morris said later on the Fox News show "Hannity & Colmes," "If you're going to be a sexual predator, be pro-choice."

Looking back, Whitehead says that the testimony of Lewinsky, Willey or Broaddrick could have tipped the balance in his client's favor.

"Any one of them could have corroborated what Paula was saying," Whitehead says, "that president Clinton had a problem with women. Ken Starr basically took over our case and took all the witnesses, and there was nothing we could do about it."

Eight days after his 1998 deposition in the Jones case, Clinton went on the airwaves and declared to the American people: "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

The deposition would have staggering repercussions for Bill Clinton. Starr began investigating tales of cigars, secret-code neckties and an unwashed blue Gap dress that conclusively showed that Clinton had lied.

In August 1998, Clinton took to the airwaves again and admitted a relationship with Lewinsky that was "not appropriate." But by then the damage was done.

His lies under oath caused the president to be charged by Judge Webber with contempt, hit with a $90,000 penalty, and eventually disbarred by both Arkansas and the U.S. Supreme Court. He no longer has a license to practice law.

To critics, Clinton was not just a philanderer but a possible sex addict whose persistent trysts — and possibly worse — caused immeasurable harm to the women, to his family and to the nation. To others, Clinton's sexual conduct never should have been investigated.

"Did you elect him to get fellatio from an intern in the Oval Office at 10 a.m.?" Whitehead asks of those critics today. "That's on the taxpayers' nickel. Are you paying him to do that?"

Although it put him and the Rutherford Institute on the national map, a decade later, Whitehead doesn't think of Jones vs. Clinton as a highlight of his career.

"I don't look back on it with a lot of fondness," he says. "Don Campbell's firm split over the case. It destroyed Paula's marriage. I don't associate a lot of good feelings with it."

Neither does Bill Clinton. In his 2004 autobiography, "My Life," he blasts the Rutherford Institute as "another right-wing legal foundation funded by my opponents.

"Now," Clinton writes, "there was no longer even a pretense that Paula Jones was the real plaintiff in the case that bore her name."

That was his version of what his wife, Hillary, had said to "Today" host Matt Lauer less than two weeks after the infamous deposition: "The great story here," she said, "is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."

"'Propaganda, all is phony,'" Whitehead says today, quoting Bob Dylan. "What political opponents could they be talking about? The guy in Kansas who gives us $17? No big foundations or corporations give any money to us because we're too damn controversial. We don't hold fundraising dinners; we sue people.

"We still haven't recovered, financially, from the Jones suit," he continues. "We lost $100,000 that first year, and it cost us $400,000 altogether. We had to make cuts in staff; we're still renting our office space. We found out firsthand that it's not a popular thing with donors to sue a president."

While he doesn't regret taking the case, Whitehead says he resents that the suit was used as the basis of an impeachment trial. "I don't think that lying about having sex counts as 'high crimes and misdemeanors,'" he says.

In spite of the harm it did to their boss, Whitehead says he's friends with some of his former White House foes.

"I've gotten to know [Clinton's former chief of staff] John Podesta, and I can understand how they would go to the mat for this guy," Whitehead says. "They really believed in him. Podesta still gets nervous talking to me, because he remembers when I was the devil."

To this day, both Whitehead and Rissler say they have no idea who the anonymous Lewinsky tipster was. They don't believe it was Linda Tripp, even though she was the one who blew the whistle on the Willey incident and who wore a wire to send her friend Monica into the arms of prosecutors.

"The tipster definitely would have to have overheard something from the inner circle or been close to a member of the inner circle," Rissler says. "Either way, she was no dummy."

As for Jones, she remarried and — as Paula McFadden — is a real estate agent in Little Rock. She spoke briefly when contacted, but declined to comment.

In addition to the 10-year anniversary of the scandal, Lewinsky's and Jones' names have been on the lips of politicos everywhere considering that Clinton could return to the White House as the husband of presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Those scandals will only come up more frequently as Clinton continues her quest to take her husband's old seat in the Oval Office, according to University of Virginia professor and political pundit Larry Sabato.

"The subject is almost certain to arise in the fall campaign," Sabato says. "Rather than rehash the Monica Lewinsky affair or the other Clinton women, the issue will probably be framed for the future. Republicans will ask, one way or another, 'Does the public want the Clinton soap opera to continue for another four or eight years?'"

What does Whitehead think of the prospect of the Clintons returning to the White House?

While he says Mrs. Clinton would be better than President George W. Bush, he worries whether her husband has gotten the psychological care that Whitehead believes he needs.

"He has a problem with sex," Whitehead says. "What all of these women have in common is that they came across his radar screen, and that he sees any smile, any glance, as a come-on. I don't know if he's gotten that help, but if he hasn't, it could get Hillary Clinton into trouble. You're not going to be able to pay everyone off."

Whitehead concedes that he never did report the alleged bugging of his office to law enforcement. He says he wouldn't have known whom to call. One thing he's sure of is that he intends to keep on sticking up for the little guys and gals to protect their civil liberties — no matter who's listening.

He says, laughing, "They've probably still got my phones tapped." S

Lindsay Barnes is a reporter and editor for The Hook in Charlottesville, in which this story first appeared. He's worked for the alternative weekly since 2005.

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