SACRAMENTO, Calif.—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.
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.