Ex-Willey friend caught between two mighty foes In becoming witness for the president, she became target of Starr

November 27, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Devastated by the death of her infant, Julie Hiatt Steele journeyed to Romania in the waning days of the Soviet empire to take solace in a baby boy she would adopt and name Adam.

Eight years later, the Richmond, Va., woman's journey of grief and hope has become the subject of swirling capital intrigue, Exhibit A in the Democrats' case against independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and a prime example of what Starr's supporters see as a concerted effort by President Clinton's backers to twist the facts in their favor.

Democrats charge that Starr's investigators riffled through Steele's adoption records, quizzed her neighbors and possibly threatened to annul her adoption in a desperate and vicious effort to persuade Steele to testify against the president.

"It shows the extraordinary lengths he is willing to go to attack people who contradict his view," said James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office.

Clinton's opponents counter that Starr was investigating whether White House aides had used the overseas adoption to pressure Steele into impugning the integrity of one of the president's accusers, Kathleen Willey.

And Starr has expressed extreme frustration that he cannot go public with his side of the story because the matter is subject to grand jury secrecy rules.

"We had questions to ask her," Starr spokesman Charles G. Bakaly III said, "and it was not to embarrass her or to take her child away."

"I'm comfortable that ultimately, if the facts come out, people will be assured there were no heavy-handed tactics," he said. "I would hope as federal prosecutors, we would be given some presumption of regularity."

In any case, the tale of this peripheral figure and her adopted son caught between the two mighty antagonists in a political duel may prove to be one of the most enduring mysteries of the White House sex scandal:

Why did she change her story, turning from witness for the prosecution to witness for the president? Why did she drop two prominent lawyers in her native Richmond in favor of two Democratically connected lawyers in Washington? And why did the adoption of a Romanian orphan become so profoundly interesting to an independent counsel determined to find evidence that the president obstructed justice?

Could it be that Starr investigated an unfounded charge of Clinton trying to intimidate Steele but wound up inadvertently committing the same offense?

Starr has not precisely denied Democratic accusations of heavy-handed tactics against Steele, but he has not confirmed them either.

In last week's impeachment hearings, the president's attorney, David E. Kendall, grilled Starr on the matter. "Have investigators investigated the adoption of an 8-year-old boy from Romania?" he demanded.

"There is an enormous amount of misinformation and false information with regard to that witness," Starr snapped back. "Some of her claims are utterly without merit and utterly without foundation."

"Is this one of them?" Kendall replied.

"No, I did not say that," Starr concluded.

Steele, 52, has said she never intended to become embroiled in the high-stakes impeachment battle. Indeed, she declined to comment for this article.

'I made two mistakes'

In June, after testifying before the Starr grand jury, she told reporters: "Over a year ago I made two mistakes. I did a favor for a person I thought was my friend, and I trusted a reporter. As a result, my good name has been damaged, my health has deteriorated, I have had to hide myself and my child from the news media in my driveway, and I have been called here today."

In March 1997, Steele's longtime close friend Willey approached her, warning that a Newsweek reporter was on his way to her house. Steele said Willey asked her for a big favor.

According to Steele, the former White House volunteer asked her to tell the reporter, Michael Isikoff, that Clinton had made an unwanted sexual advance on Willey four years earlier. Indeed, Willey asked Steele to say Willey had been so distraught over the groping that she told her friend all about it the night it happened. Steele said she had lied for Willey about other relationships, and she lied again, never dreaming the Willey story would prove so important.

Five months later, as Isikoff prepared to print Willey's allegations, Steele said she had a fit of remorse and called Isikoff to recant the story, saying her corroboration was a lie. In January 1998, White House attorneys obtained a sworn affidavit from Steele accusing Willey of asking her to lie.

Son's adoption questioned

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