Pressure on Condit Grows in Levy Case

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Under pressure from D.C. Police detectives and the parents of Chandra Levy to fully explain the nature of his friendship with the missing Modesto intern, Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres) walked a tightrope Thursday between cooperation and his instinct for legal and political survival.

Condit met Thursday night with Levy's parents and, at the same time, said in a prepared statement that he continues to be candid with investigators. "If there is any new information I can provide, I will do so without hesitation."

Though police have emphasized that Condit is not a suspect in Levy's disappearance, the combination of the parents' pointed questions about his relationship with Chandra Levy and Condit's reluctance to speak publicly has hemmed the Central Valley congressman into a predicament that shows no sign of abating.

In his brief statement, Condit lashed out Thursday at what he described as the "tabloidization of these terrible circumstances." Excessive media coverage, he said, "only causes more pain to the Levys while at the same time doing nothing to help find Chandra."

"All I ask," the statement said, "is that the media show restraint and avoid distracting the public and law enforcement from their primary task of trying to find Chandra."

Insisting he is unable to speak openly as long as the police investigation is underway, Condit is trying to tough it out, refraining from public comment while appearing to cooperate privately. But his silence has not appeared to alienate voters or congressional colleagues--and, according to some advisors, remains the best way to weather a tide of conflicting legal, political and personal pressures.

"He has to be extremely careful about what he says or doesn't say," said former Rep. Tony Coelho, who preceded Condit in his congressional seat and has advised him in recent days. "No matter how honest he is, his words can be swallowed up by the 'Story,' instead of being seen as the truth."

Coelho survived his own public savaging in 1989, resigning from Congress after the Justice Department targeted him in a criminal probe over donations from a failed savings and loan. He was never charged.

"It's a surreal situation," said Coelho. "You couldn't begin to understand how it feels until you've experienced it."

Forced to run a gantlet of cameras and reporters each day in the halls of Congress with a frozen grin, Condit, 53, has found sympathy among Hill colleagues.

"I think he's doing the appropriate thing, and that is helping the investigation," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Thursday in a morning meeting.

Condit has continued to work on congressional business. This week, in an effort to bolster California farmers buffeted by crop surpluses and foreign imports of fruit, he helped secure $12 million in federal funds to launch a "Buy California" ad campaign.

But the toll on Condit from press inquiries about his relationship with Levy is painfully evident as he sweeps past the cameras. He shrinks from public encounters. He appears to have lost weight. He blinks constantly.

Some political observers said that Condit's credibility is fading fast as he tries to play out his two-tier strategy of leveling with investigators in private without opening himself up in public.

"He should let it all hang out," said Southern California political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican. "Otherwise people are going to assume the worst."

Even as police officials said Condit was cooperating, they pressed him Thursday for more explanations. Condit had agreed to submit to more questioning at his Hill office, but late in the day, the interview had still not taken place.

Meanwhile, Levy's parents and their Washington lawyer met Thursday afternoon with D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. Both Robert and Susan Levy and lawyer William R. "Billy" Martin urged Ramsey to pursue Chandra Levy's disappearance as a criminal matter and push harder for more answers from Condit, Martin said.

Although Condit met with Martin and the parents Thursday night, details of their conversations were not made available, according to Associated Press.

Levy, 24, a Bureau of Prisons intern, was preparing to return to her Modesto family when she visited a downtown D.C. health club on the night of April 30. She sent an e-mail to her mother several hours later, then vanished.

Detectives who went through her empty apartment a week later found two packed bags, a cell phone and laptop, a stack of credit cards, running shoes and a refrigerator stocked only with leftover pasta and several packs of peanut butter cups. Her keys were missing. There was no sign of forced entry.

The request to upgrade the investigation may be a semantic one. Several former D.C. detectives told The Times that investigators were already handling the matter as if it were a criminal case.

"Practically from day one in a case like this, you have to assume foul play," one former detective said. "Officially, you can't call it that, but for all intents and purposes, that's what it is."

Members and staffers in the California delegation who have long worked with Condit said they understood his public silence. "Look how everyone's statements keep shifting--the parents, the police," said one official.

There have been repeated discrepancies. There have been reports that police have records of cell phone calls from Chandra Levy to Condit--the congressman's own lawyer, Joseph W. Cotchett, said there were "four or five" such calls. But Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer has said no such documents exist.

At another point, the Levys appeared to accuse Condit, who is married and has children, of having an affair with their daughter--then, hours later, Susan Levy insisted her words had been taken out of context.

"In Gary's case, he's very conscious of reality versus 'the Story,' " Coelho said. "I think that's why you're seeing such caution."

But the risk in "parsing your words," Hoffenblum said, "is that your words get parsed for you."

Condit, a 12-year congressional veteran who heads the "Blue Dog" caucus of conservative Democrats, has been considered an unbeatable political figure in a farming community where liberals do not prosper.

In the small towns and flat fields of the San Joaquin Valley, Condit's support has seemed as strong as ever in recent weeks, said Jeff Benziger, editor of Condit's hometown Ceres Courier, and others with their ears to the ground in the San Joaquin Valley.

"You've got folks here who are die-hard Condit people, and none of this has shaken them," said Benziger. "If it comes out that he had an affair, will people be forgiving? Probably."

Condit was center stage a few weeks ago when the town of Patterson celebrated its 31st annual Apricot Fiesta. There, he talked openly with residents about "the nation's press crucifying him," said Ron Swift, editor of the Patterson Irrigator.

Later on, Condit was among the delegation who accompanied President Bush to Sequoia National Park, and he appeared with Gov. Gray Davis at a Central Valley Economic Summit in Bakersfield.

But his Washington appearances have dwindled as he and his staff have been deluged with as many as 100 media calls a day on the Levy matter.

"He's been neither hiding nor silent," insisted Michael Lynch, Condit's chief of staff based in Modesto. "The barometer we care about most is constituent reaction, and people have been real supportive and real concerned."

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