Liddy accuser back in D.C. spotlight

Former DNC worker says she's `footnote' to Watergate scandal

January 19, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A small-town girl from Mississippi who studied piano at the local Baptist college and played the organ in church, Ida "Maxie" Wells hardly seemed destined 30 years ago to wind up in the history books.

Yet Wells became a sort of female Forrest Gump in 1970s Washington. Like the movie character who kept turning up in the front row of history, Wells found herself in the midst of Watergate as a young secretary at Democratic Party headquarters and later worked in the West Wing for President Jimmy Carter.

Now Wells is ringside again. She is suing Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy for $5.1 million, saying he has defamed her by promoting a revisionist theory of the burglary that paints her as a madam for DNC call girls.

The trial that opened this week could provide a new chapter in the scandal's long history. At the very least, it has turned federal courtroom 5A in Baltimore into something of a time machine. Liddy, Watergate's tough guy, is at the defense table with his signature shaved head and thick, dark mustache. His chief adversary, former White House Counsel John W. Dean III, is expected to testify next week when the trial resumes.

Wells, an English professor at a Louisiana community college, won't be on hand as the unlikely Watergate reunion unfolds in U.S. District Court. After testifying this week, she has to return to teach classes or risk losing pay or her job -- proof, she says, that she was little more than a bit player in the events of the 1970s.

"I've never thought I was a central figure in Watergate," she testified yesterday. "I was a minor footnote, at best."

The profile of her that emerged after more than a day of testimony, and through court records, seems to support the idea that she was an unlikely character to appear so frequently at history's crossroads or in the kind of scandal at issue now.

In her lawsuit, Wells contends that Liddy damaged her reputation by suggesting that she was helping run a call-girl ring that was the true target of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee.

Liddy, now a conservative radio talk-show host, says the burglars were trying to find photographs in Wells' desk that could have linked Dean's then-fiancee, Maureen Biner, to the prostitution ring.

Among the allegations aired this week were that Liddy's main source also has recklessly suggested that reporter Diane Sawyer was part of the call-girl operation and that Maryland Del. Sheila E. Hixson, then a DNC worker, was a runner for the group. Hixson is expected to testify next week that the allegations are false.

It all seems a far cry from tiny Clinton, Miss., where Wells grew up and attended Mississippi College, a small Baptist school where her grandmother worked as a dorm mother.

After college, Wells worked on an unsuccessful Mississippi gubernatorial campaign and then took a job with a nonprofit group that tried to attract young people into politics.

In that role, Wells attracted the attention of Hodding Carter III -- later State Department spokesman under Carter during the Iran hostage crisis of the late 1970s. Carter suggested that Wells go to work in Washington for the DNC.

Wells moved in February 1972, accompanied on her first trip by her mother, who wanted to make sure she would safely find her way around the nation's capital, according to her testimony this week.

She settled into life in Washington, sharing a house with five young men, going on frequent dates and recording the minutiae of her daily life on a desk calendar at work -- a document Liddy's lawyers are scrutinizing.

Less than five months after she arrived at the DNC, the Watergate burglary occurred. The ensuing scandal drew in Wells, then 23, who was interviewed by the FBI, and testified before the Senate Watergate Committee and at Liddy's criminal trial.

"I was terrified," said Wells, now 50. "The closest I had come to any kind of crime was getting a speeding ticket myself.

"I thought, you know, this is like all the stories you heard -- you move to the big city, and this is what happens to you," Wells said.

Among other things, the Watergate investigation would show that Wells once unknowingly gave a tour of the DNC offices to Alfred Baldwin, one of the Republican eavesdroppers, who posed as the nephew of a Democratic official.

"When I realized I had given a tour to a person who was involved with tapping phones at the DNC ... I was horrified," Wells testified.

She left Washington just months after the break-in. She would return in 1976 after spending more than a year working on Carter's presidential campaign. She spent more than a year working in the White House before returning to jobs in the South and entering a doctoral program at Louisiana State University.

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