The Magazine

SUING MICHAEL ISIKOFF

Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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NO JOURNALIST IS MORE TROUBLING to the Clinton White House than Newsweek's Michael Isikoff. He has immersed himself in White-water, taken Paula Jones's claims seriously, and listened to Linda Tripp talk about an intern named Monica. Now, Isikoff is himself a target of controversy. On June 11, Julie Hiatt Steele filed suit against him in federal district court -- alleging that the reporter betrayed her, defamed her, and ruined her life.


Does Steele's name ring a bell? She is an ex-confidante of Kathleen Willey, the woman who claims that the president accosted her in a room off the Oval Office. At first, Steele supported her friend's story, telling Isikoff that Willey had come to her in distress only hours after the alleged incident occurred. Later, though, Steele changed her tune, explaining to Isikoff that Willey, out of desperation and connivance, had asked her to lie.


Steele maintains that she and Isikoff agreed that their conversations would be off the record. She further insists that Isikoff's violation of this alleged agreement has cost her money, honor, and peace of mind. So she has socked him -- and Newsweek -- with a lawsuit charging nine counts of (among other offenses) breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and fraud.


Newsweek states emphatically that Isikoff has done nothing wrong. Ann McDaniel, the magazine's Washington bureau chief, says that Steele has lodged "a ridiculous complaint" and that "we have the utmost confidence" in Isikoff, who "knows the difference between off the record and on the record."


Still, no reporter likes to be sued. Isikoff will almost certainly find himself distracted as he fends off a legal attack -- which will presumably be fine with the White House. Steele and her lawyers deny that they are part of a Democratic cabal, but skeptics -- many of whom are in the Washington press corps -- smell a rat. They suspect that Steele is being used to harass and silence a journalist who vexes the president. Willey has described her former friend, Steele, as a "pawn," deployed by the Clintonites "to discredit me." And while Steele's lawyers declare their independence from the Clinton operation, they are hardly political innocents.


On the day she filed her law-suit, Steele testified before Kenneth Starr's grand jury. She also took the occasion to read a statement to the press -- the opening shot in a public-relations offensive. "Over a year ago," she said, "I made two mistakes: I did a favor for a person I thought was my friend, and I trusted a reporter." She then addressed herself to the president: "Although I did not vote for Mr. Clinton, I want to apologize to the president and his family. I deeply regret that my mistakes were used to cause them harm, and I assure you -- these are my words -- I have not been asked to say this. Or anything else on this matter."


Steele uttered this last part apparently to quiet speculation about her motives. Her lawyers insist that she is a relatively apolitical person, a Republican if anything, who cast votes for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. One of those lawyers, John Coale -- who is among the bar's most colorful figures -- says that Steele filed her suit for a simple reason: "Her life has not been very nice" since Isikoff printed her name almost a year ago. She has lost her job. she has lost her earning potential. She has lost her standing in the community. She has, in short, been made "notorious."


Speaking of notorious, Steele's lawyers are worth a look. Her first was John West, from Richmond, Va., where Steele was living at the time of her encounters with Isikoff. She soon switched, however, to a Washington superlawyer, Nancy Luque. West declines to say how he came to be hired by Steele and why he ceased to represent her. Luque, too, is hesitant to discuss the circumstances of her engagement, but she does say that "my representation of Julie has nothing to do with the White House or the president's other counsel or anything else concerning politics."