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Condit: From success to scandal
Night after night, as the late dinner crowd gathered inside Paragary's Bar and Oven, Gary Condit took a seat at a corner table reserved for him and his political rat pack and watched the college girls and secretaries sidle up one by one.
It was the late 1980s, and Condit and his "Gang of Five" were rising stars of the state capital, a swaggering band of young Democratic lawmakers so sure of themselves that they were trying to wrest the reins of power from Speaker Willie Brown himself. From his restaurant perch, associates now recall, the 40-year-old Condit flashed a perfect smile and flirted endlessly with the groupies as he sipped soda water and plotted ways to outfox California's most dominant politician, who was holding court at a rival hot spot across town.
In between those heady nights and long workdays, the assemblyman from the dairy farms and fruit orchards of the San Joaquin Valley escorted female staffers to the racetrack in Los Angeles and helped coeds with no work experience land legislative jobs, according to colleagues and former staffers who witnessed it or went along. Years before his affair with missing intern Chandra Levy became an American obsession and set the nation's press on a hunt for every scrap of information about his personal life, people wondered here about the public and private sides of Condit -- the Oklahoma preacher's boy who sang hymns as a child at his father's tent show revivals.
Who was the real Gary? his friends asked. He didn't drink and he didn't take drugs. And when faced with a personal or political problem, he would give them the same cryptic answer. "I need to pray on it," he'd say. And yet here he was a fixture in downtown Sacramento's nightly party scene, throwing himself into the thick of temptation, but taking care to appear chaste at the same time.
With his wife and two young kids back home in Ceres, a small town 90 minutes south of here, Condit created an enigmatic life before he ever set foot in Washington.
"I heard the rumors but I never saw Gary go home with another woman. Never once," said Rusty Areias, a longtime friend and one of the Five Amigos, as they called themselves.
Through an ascendant political career that took him from running stop signs in rural Oklahoma to marching in apricot parades in the San Joaquin Valley, from Sacramento's wild days to his roost as a "congressman-for-life" in Washington, questions of conduct have dogged the 53-year-old Condit. It is an old story in the seats of governance where powerful men meet ambitious young women. This time, though, the questions have become etched in tragedy. A 24-year-old intern -- a girlfriend not even half his age and from his own hometown -- is missing and feared dead, and people now wonder how far back the congressman's subterfuges extend.
Series of allegations
The May 1 vanishing of Levy, a bubbly, headstrong newcomer to Washington who told a family friend she fancied marrying Condit and having his children, has now torn open seams of the congressman's world. Although investigators say he is not a suspect and that there is no evidence linking him to the disappearance, police and FBI inquiries into his relationship with Levy have set off new -- and embarrassing -- revelations every few days.
Two other purported affairs, one with a 39-year-old airline flight attendant and the other involving a then-18-year-old African American Modesto girl, who later gave birth to a mixed race child and withheld the identity of the white father, have now come to light. Condit's intimates and longtime enemies are now buzzing about more liaisons, more deceptions to be unveiled, more troubling consequences.
Even if the investigation into Levy's disappearance continues to keep Condit in the clear, he almost certainly faces lasting political damage. There looms a federal probe into charges that he attempted to obstruct justice by trying to hush up the flight attendant, and investigators have begun to pore over his campaign financial records as well.
His constituents back home, many of them fellow transplants from Oklahoma, have long been willing to give Pastor Adrian Condit's son the benefit of the doubt. But as much as his Bible Belt politics have matched theirs, and as many times as he has sent flowers to their family funerals, and as often as they have sent him to office with a 70% vote, folks in California's sweeping farm belt are asking old questions, too.
Neither Condit nor his family members would comment for this story.
As far back as 1989, when Condit seized upon the biggest break of his career and won a congressional seat vacated because of scandal, he managed to raise eyebrows: He plucked a hostess from Paragary's and took her to Washington as part of his first congressional staff.
She was barely 21 years old, records show, and her legislative experience amounted to only six weeks of answering phones in Sacramento. Other staffers worried that her presence was becoming a source of disturbing gossip in Washington and Modesto. Condit paid her an inflated salary of $2,700 a month -- more than his press secretary was making -- and over three years promoted her from "personal scheduler" to appointments secretary to executive secretary.
No one on the staff, it seems, ever witnessed anything more than a flirtatious friendship. But the talk of something deeper between them was enough that staffers continued to fret that she was becoming a political liability. Even so, Condit refused to consider letting her go.
"I found her hiring strange and it raised some eyebrows," said one friend who spoke only on the condition he not be identified. "But Gary can be stubborn and he wouldn't budge."
'For Gary, it all began with family'
The story of a devoted and beloved congressman, who can't even show his face in a Fourth of July celebration back home anymore because he worries that the media's hunt for his adulterous past might disrupt the parade, begins, paradoxically, with family: Condit's fundamentalist Baptist preacher father and his God-fearing mother and his two brothers, Darrell and Burl, one a crook and the other a cop.
And then there is his wife, Carolyn, the Tulsa high school pep girl whom he married when they were both 18 in 1967. She gave birth to their first child five months later. She became a political partner who, friends and colleagues say, has stood beside Gary through thick and thin. "I remember him telling me that he and Carolyn were childhood sweethearts and he would never leave her," said one longtime friend.
It was his emphasis on family that catapulted Condit from a 25-year-old mayor of tiny Ceres to a Stanislaus County supervisor to a member of the state Assembly's "hick delegation" to the most conservative Democratic congressman seated in California.
"For Gary, it all began with family," said Mark Garrett, a staffer in the early 1990s who had also worked for Condit's powerful predecessor, Tony Coelho. "I don't mean to give a Mary Poppins view of his world, but when we worked together it was at his home, and he was always surrounded by his father and mother and his wife and two kids.
"Being accessible to his family and his constituents, that's what Gary was all about. We'd set up a cardboard table in front of a coffee shop in some small town and he'd sit there for hours just listening to people's concerns. He never took his district for granted."
Over six terms in the House, Condit perfected the art of the perpetual campaign, catering to a rural district that is Republican at its heart, attuned to his message of fiscal conservatism. He founded the "Blue Dogs," a pack of conservative Democrats who stood apart from the party's liberal leadership. His refusal to toe the party line impressed San Joaquin Valley constituents, who named their Little League teams "Blue Dogs" and called their fertile expanse "Condit Country."
He took up GOP causes, working with Newt Gingrich on his "Contract With America" agenda. These lines into the opposition camp allowed Condit to anticipate what the Republicans were doing and tailor his votes accordingly. And just as he honed his skills at House intrigue, Condit apparently took care to hide a private life in Washington, according to those who say they know about his relationship with Chandra Levy and the affair that flight attendant Anne Marie Smith has alleged. The Levy relationship was governed by exacting, near-paranoid precautions -- coded cell phone messages, separate departures, repeated warnings to keep quiet, they say.
Condit's world ran like a perpetual motion machine -- stoked by his position and protected by his caution. It worked until May 1, when Chandra Levy stepped off the face of the Earth and Gary Condit's private world became public.
Growing up in Oklahoma
From the front porch of their dairy farm in eastern Oklahoma, Adrian and Jean Condit watched neighbor after neighbor in the 1950s pull up stakes for California. For the Condits, it took a few trips back and forth to make sure that the San Joaquin Valley was, indeed, a promised land for their three boys, according to interviews with neighbors and friends and a biographical profile of Condit provided by his office.
Gary was the middle son, flanked by Burl, two years older, and Darrell, five years younger. A sister, Dovie, would trail far behind. Wherever the tent show revival circuit took Rev. Condit in Oklahoma, he brought along his boys. Gary and Burl formed a quartet with the daughters of another preacher. It was Gary who warmed up the crowd before his daddy's sermons, his sweet voice and fetching smile already front and center.
Years later, Burl, who was always bigger and a little tougher, would recall in a local newspaper article the time Gary bailed him out of a fight, taking on an older kid behind the Flying-A service station and whipping him "pretty good."
Gary spent a summer working as an oil field roustabout, earning enough cash to buy a 1964 Chevy Impala that landed him in trouble. Court records show that in one year alone a "Gary Adrian Condit" was ticketed three times in Tulsa: once for speeding through town; once for running a stop sign and once for driving without a license. In each instance, he failed to appear in court and authorities had to issue an arrest warrant.
At Nathan Hale High, Condit met Carolyn Berry, a blond pep girl who wore cardigans and had the same toothy grin. Sometime during their senior year, she became pregnant and the young couple drove to the outskirts of Oklahoma, past old Cherokee country, to get married in a county where it took only 15 minutes and a blood test to tie the knot. Back then, males in Oklahoma had to be 21 and females 18 to get married. Instead of inflating his age by three years on the form, Condit fudged it by seven, records show, stating that he was 25.
That summer, their son, Chad, was born, and they moved to California to join Rev. Condit, who was already preaching at a Baptist Church in Ceres. Gary canned tomatoes and sold paint at a Montgomery Ward store, and hadn't even graduated from Cal State Stanislaus when he decided to run for local office. He won his first race at age 23 and, two years later, became one of the youngest mayors in the state.
Rusty Areias was living on his family dairy in Los Banos when he began tracking Condit's rise from city council to board of supervisors. In 1982, after both men won election to the state Assembly representing adjacent districts, they met at a cattle call of freshman legislators in San Francisco.
"These business leaders were having a beauty contest of sorts and here we were trotted out to explain our pro-business agendas," recalled Areias, now the head of state parks and recreation. "Gary struck me right off as a good listener, quiet and reserved, but also a lot of fun.
"We became the best of friends. He didn't wear his religion on his sleeve but every so often, if there was a difficult dilemma, he'd say, 'I need to pray about that.' You couldn't tell if it was tongue in cheek or if he really went home and prayed about it."
Later, when Areias and his father lost their 6,000-acre dairy to bankruptcy, Condit was one of the few friends to stand beside him. "The guy came through for me in my toughest times. He'd call and say, 'Rusty, this will pass, too, and everything will be all right again. Just stick with it.' "
Their friendship had been forged during the Gang of Five days when Condit and Areias, believing that Willie Brown's agenda was leaning too far to the left, teamed up with three like-minded assemblymen from Southern California: Steve Peace, Jerry Eaves and Charles Calderon. They took a trip to Mexico and hatched a plan to use their bloc of votes to join with Republicans on certain issues and thwart the Assembly speaker.
The tall, dark Areias, who wasn't married at the time and drove a Porsche and even managed to outdress Speaker Brown, assumed the role of playboy. He and Condit made the rounds from Paragary's to Eilish's, where Sammy Davis Jr., as a favor to Brown, could be found singing a cappella with only the jukebox as accompaniment.
"It was a small town at the heart and all of a sudden we were the big fish," Areias said. "Everyone wanted to share in that glow."
Pamela Joan Whittingham, a 22-year-old part-time college student with dyed yellow hair and high-top canvas tennis shoes, was one of those drawn to the light of Condit and his pals. She was drinking with friends at Frank Fat's restaurant when she introduced herself as "P.J." to Condit and Brown, and they began trading one-liners rapid-fire. The pols couldn't keep up.
"They thought I was crazy and entertaining, and I'm sure I was," said Whittingham, now a wife and mother who goes by her married name, Harper. "I know I wasn't very astute politically."
Condit found her such a delightful spirit, friends and former staffers say, that he gave her a job answering constituent mail, and she later managed his office. She accompanied Condit on overnight trips to Los Angeles, she said, and they went to the racetrack at Santa Anita and flirted over dinner. Their relationship became such a source of gossip that nearly 20 years later, in the midst of the Levy scandal, people still mention her name as one of Condit's former lovers. It never happened, she said.
"This is why I have such a hard time believing all this junk about Gary, because people say the same thing about him and me. Yes, we gave them plenty to talk about. He's charming and handsome and a big flirt, and so am I. We were very close. We went out together in public. But nothing, nothing inappropriate ever happened behind closed doors. I mean I baby-sat his daughter, and Carolyn and I became friendly."
Back then, according to friends and former staffers, Carolyn was deeply involved in her husband's political life, offering advice and riding in holiday parades and sending thank-you cards to heavyweight contributors. Their youngest child, Cadee, practically grew up in the halls and back offices, and she used to brag to friends that her father knew how to skirt the security alarms and checkpoints on their way to eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the Capitol roof.
Brothers Often Source of Embarrassment
The notion of family wasn't just a political theme, friends and neighbors and former staffers say. Gary lived it, they said, at least when it came to standing by his two brothers, who were often a source of embarrassment. Darrell's rap sheet and needle-scarred body became a testament to a life that had spiraled out of control soon after the family put down roots in Ceres.
He fell into the shadows of the San Joaquin Valley's methamphetamine nether world, court records show, and hopped from state to federal prison on convictions for drug possession, vehicle theft and trying to pass a forged government check. In 1980s, he led Modesto police on a high-speed chase through city streets, convinced they were trying to kill him. "Get my brother out here," he shouted.
It wasn't clear if he meant Burl or Gary. Burl had risen to police lieutenant in charge of the K-9 unit, but he was best known for the rattlesnake chili he cooked at local fund-raisers. If Gary was trim and not a hair out of place, friends said, Burl was burly, drank beer, wore coveralls and drove around town in a blue Chevy pickup with the license plate "ROTN K9." His affection for guns landed him in hot water more than once, police officials say. He was once reprimanded for shooting his service revolver in a park for fun, and city officials say one errant bullet even landed in his rump. Locals chuckle that because of a demotion, Burl is the only Modesto cop to ever make sergeant twice.
"The joke around here has always been that one brother makes the law, one brother enforces the law and one brother breaks the law," said one former Modesto policeman who, like the others, spoke on the condition his name not be used. "But as you can see, it's more complicated than that. Burl's the classic good ol' boySouthern cop."
When it came time for family and friends to travel to the capital to celebrate each of his swearing-in ceremonies, Condit made sure that his brothers -- public relations problem or not -- stood beside him. His Assembly colleagues still remember the scene of a tightknit and proud but troubled clan. The loyalty that Condit showed to his family and friends, they said, was one of his best traits. And yet when he extended that same loyalty to a 20-year-old female employee of Paragary's, friends and former staffers say, it raised questions about his judgment and his willingness to risk scandal.
Randy Paragary said he recalls little about his former restaurant hostess, other than she was a local Sacramento girl. She had grown up in the same neighborhood of elegant houses that Ronald Reagan once called home. In the summer of 1989, Condit helped her get a secretarial job with his Sacramento roommate, Assemblyman Peace. State personnel records show that Peace paid her $600 a month. She quit after six weeks, her resignation coming just five days before Condit himself officially stepped down from the Assembly to assume his 18th District congressional seat. She immediately joined Condit's staff.
The woman, now a divorced mother of two, declined to comment on the three years she worked for Condit in Washington. Last week, she turned away a reporter at her door, and her attorney told The Times that "she wants nothing to do with any of this."
Her job as Condit's personal assistant brought a big pay hike -- to $2,700 a month, according to congressional employment records. In the fall of 1990, she was making more than the press secretary and just $200 less a month than the person who oversaw Condit's entire office. Former staffers say she had little experience and made some mistakes, but "she was fairly competent at what she did," which was flagging his mail and taking dictation and driving him around town in the car she brought East.
"She never discussed her private life," said one former colleague. "She was very discreet. There were rumors all the time [about a relationship with Condit] but I never saw him do anything inappropriate. He was kind of courtly in his behavior, actually."
At least one of his advisors back home said he heard the gossip and raised questions about possible political fallout, questions that Condit shrugged off. Condit continued to elevate her role until the summer of 1992, when she walked out of the office one day in a fit of tears and never returned.
"There was no official reason ever given," said the former staffer. "It was very sudden. I remember her crying and I went up to her and asked what's wrong but she didn't say anything. Suddenly she was gone."
Living in two worlds
Like other California politicians who lead bicoastal lives, Condit straddled two worlds, his watch set on Washington time and his cowboy boots covered with San Joaquin Valley dust.
Each place had its own home and harried schedules and moments of play and seclusion. He sliced his week in half, plunging into his congressional work Monday through Thursday, then flying west to shore up his political base and pass the long weekends with his wife and children, who now work in the state capital for his good friend, Gov. Gray Davis. He tried hard not to miss one of his grandson Channce's Little League games.
Following through on constituent service became an obsession. When he met voters at his "sidewalk chats" -- well-advertised in local newspapers -- Condit made sure aides scribbled down the requests and complaints.
"We wrote down everything," said Robert Guenther, Condit's former aide on agricultural issues. "It was our job to respond later by letter. The staff lived in fear of someone coming up and saying, 'Hey, Congressman, you never replied to my letter.' That kind of thing got under his skin."
Condit was not "a screamer," Guenther added. "He treated his people decently. He was as friendly to a cafeteria worker as he was to the committee chairmen," said John Edgell, a Government Operations subcommittee aide who worked closely with Condit.
In 1993, Condit and his wife bought a condominium -- now estimated to be worth $100,000 to $125,000 -- in Washington's Adams-Morgan section. It was a rare splurge for a man as tightfisted with his own finances as he was with the country's. Condit reported no outside investments on his House disclosure statements -- no stocks, mutual funds or vacation properties.
A love for motorcycles
With Carolyn back in Ceres, Condit became the sole occupant of the fourth-floor residence. He settled into a gentrifying neighborhood of brick and brownstone row homes not far from a strip of ethnic restaurants and outdoor cafes where young singles sipped wine late into the night.
His new digs might have seemed slightly out of kilter with the homespun image Condit cultivated back in Ceres and with the House Bible-study meetings he attended. Careful as Condit was to not play with fire as openly as he had in Sacramento, he managed to find outlets that took him to the edge.
He would borrow or rent motorcycles, sometimes hitting the highway with fellow biker Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell (R-Colo.). He won an approving notice in "Easy Riders" motorcycle magazine. Back in Ceres, Condit tooled around on his Harley with Vince Flammini, a brawny weightlifter with pals in the Hells Angels, who served as Condit's driver and security man and who would later claim that the congressman had dated other women.
In the middle of his tight workday, Condit sometimes dropped out of sight. Aides might find him pumping iron with other gym rats at the House health club or catching a tan on the Capitol balcony.
Condit also worked on his political persona, taking to heart the lessons he had learned during the Gang of Five's unsuccessful bid to overtake Speaker Brown. Shunned at first by many members of the California congressional delegation because of his fiscal stance and feud with Brown, Condit gravitated toward conservative Democrats.
In 1994, the year that the GOP seized control of the House and rammed through its sweeping program of social and fiscal conservatism, the "Contract With America," Condit took care to nurture cross-party ties. When Republicans gleefully assumed command of the Agriculture Committee, Condit was the only Democrat to walk across the hearing room and shake hands with his GOP counterparts. Democrats bristled.
"Kissing up to the GOP was a no-brainer," said a former congressman. "He got to play middleman between both sides. And they loved it back home."
His relations with the Republicans grew so cozy that one Republican House leader, former Ohio Rep. John Kasich, talked openly of campaigning for Condit out in the San Joaquin Valley. Kasich retreated on the idea when GOP leaders took him aside. But the two rock music enthusiasts grew close and attended a concert in 1994 featuring Pearl Jam, where Condit and Kasich waded into a mosh pit of writhing kids. Kasich said later that Condit thought the mob was trying to fight him.
In 1998, Condit played both sides of the careening political crisis of Bill Clinton's impeachment by splitting his votes at key moments, even as he railed against the president's moral lapses. His chiding words would come back to haunt him after Levy's disappearance. At the time, Condit and his Blue Dogs held votes vital to Clinton.
Condit's vote to approve a House Judicial Committee inquiry into the president's conduct seemed daring, but in fact was a quietly planned safety valve. When Clinton really needed his vote on the later articles of impeachment, Condit and his Blue Dogs fell right into line.
Condit, another House staffer said, was genuine in venting his deeply felt sense of outrage about Clinton's moral failings. But "he knew how to exploit it too, and considering the rumors you heard about Gary, it made you wonder what he was doing."
But rumors were all that passed around the Hill until Levy vanished and her family went public with their affair. The revelations were bolstered by United Airlines flight attendant Anne Marie Smith revealing her own alleged affair with the congressman. In both cases, Condit apparently went to extraordinary lengths to cover his tracks -- a devotion to secrecy that Levy's family and Smith described as bordering on paranoia.
Chandra related to her uncle's fiancee, Linda Zamsky, that she and Condit often ate at his condo. If a stranger boarded an elevator with the two of them, she told Zamsky, Condit directed her to get off at another floor. They always left separately, with Condit often wearing a baseball cap low over his head.
Despite his overarching caution, Levy told Zamsky that Condit presented her with several gifts. The intern showed Zamsky a gold chain bracelet -- a holiday present. Chandra also told Zamsky that Condit once provided her with a plane ticket home.
Authorities widen their investigation
As tensions have flared in recent weeks between authorities and Condit's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, over the extent of his cooperation, investigators have begun eyeing Condit's personal finances.
FBI agents are already probing Smith's account that Condit urged her to lie about their relationship, an allegation that raises questions of obstruction of justice. Authorities have examined some of Condit's campaign expenditure records and are considering whether to request access to his bank and credit accounts, said a source familiar with the probe.
Back at home in California where Condit and his son, Chad, serve as Gov. Davis' Central Valley political eyes and ears, the media attention has altered their lives. Neighbors say Carolyn Condit must sneak out the back door and through a church parking lot to go to the store. They rarely see her anymore, though they discount reports that she suffers from a long-standing illness.
Friends and former staffers, though miffed by Condit's refusal to speak publicly, cannot fathom him having a direct role in Levy's disappearance. As for the disclosures of his affair and allegations of other relationships, they chalk it up to a man who married young and tried to stay true to his fundamentalist Baptist upbringing and simply found the burdens too much.
The other day, Areias talked to his old friend and tried to offer Condit the same comfort that he used to give Areias in moments of despair.
"I told him, 'Gary, this will pass and life will be good again. It just takes time and it's something you have to ride out.' He said, 'Don't worry, Rusty, I'll still be standing when this is all over.'"