The worst of times, Susan McDougal recalls, "was in that red dress, being transported inside the cage in the bus, pressed up close against the mesh dividing us from the male prisoners, who were hurling obscenities, feces, spittle and urine."
The red dress identified her to other inmates in the Los Angeles County Jail as a government snitch or child molester requiring protection from the general prison population. It elicits a particularly nasty response.
That was its design, McDougal insisted in a phone interview following her unanimous acquittal in a Los Angeles County court last week of nine charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and forgery. The claim was that she was kept in isolation for her own protection, but why then was she shackled even for meetings with her attorney? Somebody wanted to break McDougal and that somebody, she is certain, was Kenneth Starr.
The enmity is clearly there. In his testimony before Congress, Starr blamed McDougal for the collapse of his Whitewater case. But his office issued a statement after the acquittal denying any stake in the outcome of the California case. McDougal insists that emissaries from the independent counsel's office had long made it painfully clear that if she corroborated her late husband's charge against the Clintons in Whitewater, she would not only have "global immunity" from all federal crimes but also that "the charges in California would be made to disappear."
Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti insists the decision to go to trial was his, but that the condition of her incarceration was determined by the county sheriff's office. McDougal's attorney, Mark Geragos, in a federal district court filing, quoted the counsel for the sheriff as stating that his office did not want to get "sideways with the feds."
The federal marshal had ultimate jurisdiction over McDougal because of a criminal contempt charge that Starr has brought in the Whitewater case. And it was the federal marshal who refused to honor the decision of state Superior Court Justice Paul Flynn that she be released in her own recognizance.
McDougal's harsh time in the county jail for a crime in which she was ultimately found innocent ended only when the ACLU successfully petitioned in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. "The only reason she got released," ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum said, "was because Starr's office did not want a hearing where they had to justify the exceptional treatment. No one I know who is experienced with reluctant grand jury witnesses had ever heard of conditions like those Susan was subjected to."
But the lady never cracked. Rather, after months of solitary confinement under constant observation by guards in what she describes as a glass cage in the Los Angeles County Jail, she emerged after her acquittal unbowed and eager to take the fight to Starr. She and her lawyer said they plan to turn the criminal contempt trial this February in Arkansas into a trial of Starr's tactics.
It is not lost on McDougal that if she had followed her ex-husband's lead in implicating the president, she could have cut a favorable deal. After steadfastly denying any involvement by the Clintons in wrongdoing, Jim McDougal reversed himself and his reward was a short sentence and a eulogy from Starr at his funeral.
Susan McDougal hung tough, rejecting what she insists was a long-standing offer from Starr's office to avoid the L.A. trial. "They told me they had already talked to the D.A. in Los Angeles and that it was a done deal. They said, 'This is something we know how to do; we do this every day, we can make your life very easy.' I said I didn't know anything negative about Bill and Hillary Clinton and that I was not guilty in California."
On that, she has been proved right. And even her detractors concede that her role in Whitewater was minor compared with the roles of her husband and David Hale, who made the original charges. Yet because of her resistance to Starr, she has served more hard jail time than either of those two men.
Why? What's in it for her? This is a woman stuck in a living hell for the past four years that she could have totally avoided by simply telling the independent counsel what he wanted to hear. Had she implicated the president or his wife in something illegal, anything, she would have walked instantly free.
Instead, she has been subjected to physical pain, psychological humiliation and the ultimate threat to one's freedom that an all-powerful state can exert in the way of intimidation. She survived, but how many among us would have been willing to endure and not taken the deal?