President Clinton’s personal secretary and gatekeeper to the Oval Office was called Tuesday before a federal grand jury investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and possible perjury by the chief executive, as Democrats blistered his tormentors for pursuing a “right-wing conspiracy.”
Betty Currie, described by friends as the “mother hen” of the West Wing, was summoned to provide information about repeated White House visits she had approved for former intern Monica Lewinsky.
Prosecutors are known to be especially concerned about a series of visits that occurred during a time when Lewinsky no longer worked at the White House but faced the prospect of being questioned under oath about her relationship with Clinton.
In addition, prosecutors want to know whether Currie tried to make contact with Lewinsky from the White House on Jan. 16, the day Lewinsky first was interrogated by agents for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and if so, why.
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Democrats ended a week of panicky silence by attacking Starr as part of an extreme right-wing conspiracy out to destroy Clinton at all costs. In a floor speech just hours before Clinton delivered his State of the Union address to Congress, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., blistered Starr as “the most partisan” independent counsel ever and charged that his goal is “getting the president by whatever means necessary.”
House Democrats, emerging from a closed-door pep rally earlier Tuesday, blasted the news media for playing into Starr’s hands.
Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the Democratic caucus, said allegations that Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky are a “momentary preoccupation” of the public brought about by the news media.
“Sure, this is a People Magazine kind of story, but what people are interested in are kids and Social Security,” Fazio said.
Fazio said his fellow Democrats were in “a positive, upbeat mood” after the 45-minute meeting.
He urged reporters not to forget the president’s agenda “in the swirl of controversy.” The meeting, Fazio said, helped dispel political anxieties of members.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., insisted his constituents are interested in health, education, jobs and wages, not a sex scandal about the president.
“Everybody is jumping to conclusions,” Gephardt said. “Unless there is credible evidence to the contrary, he (Clinton) deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
Rep. David E. Bonior, D-Mich., also hinted that the allegations of an affair may stem from Clinton’s political opponents.
“There are strings that lead, wires that lead, to the right-wing camps from the very beginning,” Bonior said.
On a day in Washington that was supposed to have been dominated by the State of the Union address, with its report of a vanishing federal deficit and its proposals for helping children and the elderly, there were these other developments in the unfolding drama:
Starr continued his cat-and-mouse game over whether to grant Lewinsky immunity from prosecution in return for testimony. Her lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, argues that she deserves leniency as Starr’s only significant witness, but prosecutors counter that she is in no position to haggle because she could go to prison for committing perjury and for trying to persuade co-worker Linda Tripp to lie as well.
“We’re still waiting” for Starr’s response to the verbal offer made Monday, Ginsburg said late Tuesday. “We’ve heard nothing. We didn’t realistically expect to hear anything until after the State of the Union” that Clinton presented Tuesday.
A Portland high school drama teacher who said he had a five-year affair with Lewinsky said Tuesday that the former White House intern boasted of having a sexual relationship with a “high-ranking person in the White House” and phoned him up to five times a day with news of her adventures.
Andy Bleiler, who presented the details of his years with Lewinsky through his attorney, said there was no indication of who Lewinsky was referring to. Bleiler is scheduled to talk to a representative of Starr today.
Sources close to the inquiry said investigators thus far have been unable to corroborate what one law enforcement source had described Sunday as “credible” indications that a Secret Service agent or other White House staff member might have witnessed an intimate encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky.
Clinton agreed Tuesday to turn over his sealed deposition in the Paula Jones case to the independent counsel looking into whether he lied under oath by denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
By consenting to the release of the deposition, Clinton effectively handed Starr a critical piece of evidence that the independent counsel will need if he proceeds with a perjury investigation of the president.
In calling Clinton’s personal secretary before the grand jury, which held its first session Tuesday, Starr began to lay the foundation for a possible challenge to Clinton’s account of his relationship with Lewinsky.
At issue are both Clinton’s sworn denial of a sexual relationship, made recently in a deposition in the Paula C. Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, and the possibility that Clinton or others acting on his behalf sought to persuade Lewinsky to help cover up the relationship - which might make Clinton guilty of obstruction of justice.
Currie is an important figure in all this, partly because records show that she is the official who authorized Lewinsky to enter the executive mansion numerous times, including at night, at a time when Lewinsky knew she was going to be questioned in the Jones case.
Investigators want to know whether she saw Clinton or others, and whether they discussed what she should say.
Jones’ lawyers, who had been seeking to identify several women whom they suspected were past paramours of Clinton, notified Lewinsky on Dec. 17 that they wanted to question her, too, under oath.
People familiar with the matter said that following this development, Lewinsky, with the assistance of Clinton’s trusted friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., retained Washington lawyer Francis D. Carter.
In the meantime, Lewinsky - who visited the White House numerous times in 1997 - continued to stay in touch with Clinton.
Lewinsky’s last visit to the White House, according to knowledgeable sources, was during the last week or so of December. On Jan. 7, Lewinsky signed an affidavit that was filed with the intention of persuading a judge to prevent her being forced to answer questions in a deposition. In the affidavit, Lewinsky swore that she had not had sexual relations with Clinton.
Currie, 58, offered no comment as she descended the courthouse steps here after her session with the grand jury.
Starr has subpoenaed computerized White House records supposedly recording Lewinsky’s precise arrival and departure times. The prosecutor also is seeking records that could show the dates and times when Currie telephoned or paged Lewinsky, sources said.