WASHINGTON — For months, allegations of impropriety had been boiling around the trading of favors between Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and his close friend of 25 years, embattled attorney E. Robert Wallach.
At one point, Ursula Meese, the attorney general's wife of 30 years and a former probation officer, found herself in front of a grand jury.
As she recalled it, part of the grand jury session went like this.
Questioner: "Well, now, Mr. Wallach is your husband's best friend?"
Ursula Meese: "Absolutely not. \o7 I'm \f7 his best friend."
It was vintage Ursula Meese. When they think they've cornered you, come out with all guns blazing. No whimpering wife she. Her response provoked laughter from the grand jury, she recalled. But her no-holds-barred defense of the ruinous Meese family reputation is anything but a joke. The woman who has donned a bunny suit for the White House Easter egg roll fits just as easily in a figurative suit of armor.
At the time of his wife's grand-jury appearance, Edwin Meese was being investigated for income tax problems, and for actions he may have taken to help Wallach in deals involving Wedtech Corp., a now-defunct defense contractor, and a proposed $1-billion Iraqi pipeline project. Wallach, who used to meet weekly with Meese and advise him on issues big and small, professional and personal, was indicted in December on charges that he and others conspired to extract illegal payments from Wedtech for the purpose of lobbying Meese and other government officials. Also indicted was W. Franklyn Chinn, Meese's former financial consultant. The 14-month investigation of Meese by independent counsel James C. McKay ended without any indictments, even though McKay later said he thought Meese "probably violated criminal law" on four occasions.
Ursula Meese, who has been involved in several controversies herself, was defiant in defending her husband and herself during a recent interview.
Like her husband, she pointed to the lack of indictments as complete vindication.
"He's been cleared. He's not going to prison. He's not going to be fined. He's not even going to court," she said, her voice husky, her manner completely self-assured. "I could challenge anybody else to go through what we have gone through and come out as clean and as pure and as honest and as balanced as we have. I mean it's just phenomenal."
McKay's later statement that Meese had probably violated criminal law struck her as "ludicrous. I mean, how can you do that? You're never half-pregnant.
The Meeses did "nothing illegal, immoral or ethically wrong. People say, 'How in the world could you stand it?' You know, we don't go home and wring our hands and rant and rave. Screaming doesn't help," she said.
The Meeses, she added, are "angry, yeah, but embarrassed? No."
There has been "confusion, yes. Shame? No!"
Perhaps hardest hit by the public ordeal was their daughter, Dana, who in 1983, transferred from a private high school to a public school after her teacher led a lively class discussion about a column by political satirist Art Buchwald ridiculing Meese's statement that there should be no hungry people in America.
"It was very insensitive to do to a teen-ager," said Ursula Meese, 56.
Showing anger at times, and laughing heartily at other moments, she talked about their ordeal while sitting in her small office at the Multiple Sclerosis Society, where she performs a job that generated enough controversy to draw the attention of the special prosecutor.
After working at the organization as a volunteer for five years, she began drawing a $40,000-a-year salary on Jan. 1, 1986, as head of a program aimed at helping the disabled find jobs. Her salary comes from a grant donated to the MS Society by the Bender Foundation, a tax-exempt philanthropic organization headed by the family of real estate developer Howard S. Bender. Reports surfaced that the job came about as a result of an inquiry to the Bender Foundation by Wallach.
This she does not deny.
"He (Wallach) may well have approached them," she said. "Yeah, I think he did."
Less than 1 1/2 years after she went on the payroll, the Justice Department renewed a 10-year, $50-million lease of a run-down office building that had been acquired by a Bender real estate partnership in 1985. Thirteen days later, the partnership sold the building, including its lease as an asset, for a $22.7-million profit over two years of ownership.
"They sold it?" she asked in the interview. "Well, I didn't know anything about that."
Neither she nor her husband knew anything about the lease at the time it was renewed, she said.
"That would never come across Ed's desk. None of those buildings come across Ed's desk. General Services handles that. I'm sure he doesn't know what Justice owns or doesn't own," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if Bender owns other parts of Justice.