(Published: Saturday, June 16, 2001)
Questions about the relationship between Ceres Rep. Gary Condit and missing intern Chandra Levy of Modesto have entered a new lawyer-on-lawyer phase.
Levy's parents have hired an attorney whom they have refused to identify and who is expected to make public statements early next week, Susan Levy said Friday in Modesto. The Levys themselves will not be talking to the press for a while, after sitting through dozens of interviews in the past month and suggesting growing impatience with Condit.
"I think he could come out and share what he does know," Levy said during a lengthy interview Thursday on cable channel
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MSNBC. "We would appreciate his help, for having some questions answered."
Condit, too, is using an attorney to speak to the media, and is hoping to use campaign funds to pay the bills.
In Condit's case, a politically active attorney whose clients have ranged from the E.&J. Gallo Winery to the publishers of Consumer Reports is asking journalists -- so far, without success -- for retractions of certain stories. The rejected requests could lead to libel lawsuits to be filed within the next year, although attorney Joseph Cotchett said Friday that no decisions have been made.
"What I've told Gary Condit is very simple," Cotchett said in an interview Friday in Palo Alto. "He's a public figure, and you have to be ready for people to say anything about you."
In libel cases, public figure must prove that the media either knowingly published something false or showed reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of a statement.
In Condit's case, the stories in question do not have much to do with the actual disappearance of Levy, last seen April 30 in Washington, D.C.
Washington police have said they have no reason to connect the 53-year-old Condit to the disappearance. Instead, the stories in question deal with the married Condit's relationship with the 24-year-old woman he called a "great person and a good friend" in a prepared statement.
Cotchett, who won Gallo's legal battle with rival winemaker Kendall-Jackson, stressed that his focus is on the fairness and accuracy of stories rather than the nature of Condit's relationship with Levy.
He has not asked for retraction of one story alleging phone calls from Levy to Condit in the days before her disappearance, although he did not rule it out.
"If it's true, if it's accurate, I don't care," Cotchett said of the phone call account, first published in the New York Post.
He added: "I'm not dealing with relationships. I don't care about relationships it's totally irrelevant, unless it has something to do with her disappearance, and no one has said that it has."
In that vein, Cotchett said he "can't answer" the question as to whether Chandra Levy ever spent the night at Condit's Washington apartment. "Our position," he said, "is that it's irrelevant."
Cotchett has, however, asked for a retraction of newspaper claims that Condit told law enforcement officials that Levy had spent the night at his Washington apartment. The two separate questions are whether Levy spent the night, and whether Condit told law enforcement she had spent the night.
The Washington Post has refused to retract its account and is standing by its story. In that same story, the paper quoted an unnamed Levy relative as saying Chandra had told her of having a relationship with Condit.
Thursday, Susan Levy indicated that she had discussed Condit with her daughter.
"There's been some conversation and I can't go into it at this point," Levy said in the MSNBC interview.
Levy later told The Washington Post that she had asked her daughter if the man she was seeing was Condit. "When I asked her that," Levy told The Post, "Chandra said, 'How did you know?'"
Condit hired Cotchett within the past two weeks and is now researching whether congressional rules permit him to use campaign funds to pay his legal expenses. Campaign funds cannot be used for criminal defense work, but in this case Cotchett is handling a purely civil matter. Levy's disappearance itself is still classified as a noncriminal, missing-person case by Washington police.
"We will pay with campaign funds if they determine that's appropriate," Mike Lynch, Condit's chief of staff, said Friday. "Otherwise, we will use personal funds."
Condit also used surplus campaign funds for the $10,000 he contributed to the reward being offered to help find Levy. The 12-year congressional veteran has much readier access to campaign funds than to personal savings, public records show.
Condit raised $785,996 during the last two-year election cycle, according to the records. At the end of last year, his campaign treasury reported having $261,961 in cash. By contrast, he listed no assets on his 1999 personal financial disclosure form filed last year.
The Condits own a home in Ceres, where his wife, Carolyn, lives full time, and he has a condominium in Washington.
Through his staff, Condit has denied having a romantic relationship with Levy. Washington police interviewed him once at his Washington apartment and have described him as cooperative.
None of his three written statements issued to date describes how often Condit saw Levy, who met the congressman when she was a 23-year-old Bureau of Prisons intern. Nor do they describe when they last saw each other or last talked on the phone.
Condit's position in part, relayed through his staff, is that such questions distract from the search for Levy.
Monday morning, Cotchett will take Condit's case back to the court of public opinion with an appearance on CBS-TV.
"All I want," Cotchett said, "is for the press to be fair and accurate."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at (202) 383-0006 or firstname.lastname@example.org.