WASHINGTON -- Kathleen Willey, a former aide who reportedly has said under oath that President Clinton made an aggressive sexual advance toward her in the White House, testified before a grand jury yesterday in a session of critical importance to the independent counsel's investigation.
Willey, 51, may be able to shed light on several aspects of Kenneth W. Starr's complex investigation. One issue is whether Nathan Landow, a wealthy Democratic donor from Maryland, urged Willey to remain silent about her encounter with Clinton if called to testify in Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct case against the president.
Landow has vehemently denied that he did any such thing.
Yesterday, Willey emerged from her all-day session before the grand jury without saying a word. She didn't appear to have an attorney with her, the first witness to brave the grand jury without one. It could be a sign that Willey is cooperating with Starr.
Unlike Monica Lewinsky, who burst on the scene in January as a central figure in the investigation of Clinton, Willey emerged slowly, first as a bit player in the Jones case. Yesterday, she appeared as a potential linchpin witness in a case that Starr appears to be building against the president, a case that includes possible obstruction of justice charges.
The Willey chapter of the saga dates to Nov. 23, 1993, a nightmarish day for Willey, in which she came to Washington to meet with Clinton, and her husband committed suicide.
Related by marriage to a family of prominent Virginia Democrats, Willey had volunteered in the White House social office and knew the president. On that day, she visited Clinton to ask about being hired as a paid assistant.
Her husband, Edward E. Willey Jr., a Richmond lawyer, had made unauthorized use of a client's money, and the family was in desperate straits. That day, before his wife returned home, Edward Willey fatally shot himself.
Only Willey and Clinton know for sure what happened in their meeting, in a private study beside the Oval Office. When she emerged from the office, Willey was seen by Linda R. Tripp, then a secretary in the White House counsel's office. Tripp reported seeing a disheveled Willey, her lipstick smeared and blouse askew.
Jones' lawyers heard of this account and sought Willey's deposition. What she said under oath startled even some Clinton loyalists once it leaked in news accounts:
Willey reportedly swore that after she tearfully told the president of her financial plight, he hugged her, saying he was sorry for her troubles. Then, as he led her into the Oval Office, she said, Clinton kissed her, pulled her close and said, "I've wanted to do this ever since the first time I laid eyes on you." She said he then fondled her and placed her hand on his groin.
Jones' lawyers were keenly interested in Willey's account, on the theory that it helped demonstrate a pattern of sexual harassment by Clinton toward women.
Clinton has declined to respond publicly to this account. In his deposition in the Jones case, he reportedly denied doing anything other than hugging Willey in a brotherly way and expressing solicitude for her troubles.
All this occurred in the venue of a civil lawsuit, outside the bounds of Starr's investigation -- until Lewinsky surfaced.
Lewinsky, 24, had told Tripp that she had been having a sexual relationship with the president, also in his study, that began when she was an unpaid 21-year-old intern.
In her conversations with Tripp, Lewinsky urged Tripp not to tell Jones' lawyers about this affair. Lewinsky also tried to persuade Tripp to undercut Willey's account. She gave Tripp "talking points," which Starr suspects were prepared by a lawyer, urging Tripp to change her story about having seen a disheveled Willey outside Clinton's office after the alleged incident.
Thus Willey became a link connecting Jones, Lewinsky and Tripp, and a key figure in Starr's effort to determine whether the president or those close to him orchestrated a cover-up of Clinton's sexual conduct that might have amounted to obstruction of justice.
As part of this thinking, Starr's prosecutors were expected to ask Willey about anything that Landow may have said or done that might have been calculated to keep her from disclosing the incident with Clinton.
Landow, a former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who is close to Vice President Al Gore, has insisted that he did nothing of the kind and has threatened to sue ABC News and Newsweek, which first aired assertions by unnamed sources that Landow might have tried to influence Willey.
Landow maintained, in interviews with The Sun, that political forces hostile to Clinton are simply fishing for information damaging to Clinton. He also chided the news media, saying that in their pursuit of presidential sex scandals, some reporters are exercising little care with the facts or with people's reputations.