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Even in Death, Lobbyist Is a Complicated Case

April 30, 2005|Mary McNamara and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

From the beginning, it was a case of opposite extremes: the gay Republican politico with a drug habit, whose best friend was a Hollywood celebrity known for her Democratic politics and her recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. But on Feb. 26, when R. Gregory Stevens died in Carrie Fisher's home, the attraction of opposites turned tragic. He had been in town to attend the Oscars. They had gone to a party, then sat up past midnight watching "Mrs. Miniver." What could have gone wrong?

The final autopsy report, released earlier this week, lists as the cause of death "cocaine and oxycodone use" but adds as contributing factors chronic, and apparently previously undiagnosed, heart disease. Media coverage of an initial autopsy report used the word "overdose," but that wording is not in the final report.

Even in death, Stevens, a political consultant for the Washington lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers who served as co-chairman of the Bush/Cheney entertainment industry committee, was a complicated case.

"It was not a classic overdose," said his brother W. Grant Stevens, a physician who examined his brother on the day of his death and was upset by the use of the word in the media. "His heart was damaged by a life of chronic drug use. But if I were to commit suicide by drugs, you would see a level of toxicity that was not the case here."

According to the coroner's office, the level of oxycodone, a powerful painkiller, in Stevens' blood was considered lethal; nevertheless it was the combination of drugs and two forms of heart disease that led to death.

Had the preexisting heart conditions not been present, said coroner's spokesman Craig Harvey, "the drugs perhaps would not have had the effect they did."

Stevens, 42, was also, according to the coroner's report, in the throes of a six-week case of bronchitis, for which he had not sought medical attention. Fisher and other friends have said they did not notice Stevens' being high. His brother told investigators that Stevens' drug use began 24 years ago. On the night of his death, Stevens did not, in all probability, take any more drugs than he had in the past, according to his brother.

But on this night, with no more warning than excessive sweatiness -- common among cocaine users -- his heart simply gave out.

"Our family is devastated," said Grant Stevens, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon and the eldest of four brothers. "Some of us knew [about the cocaine use]; some of us didn't. It's just a tragedy to lose someone like him."

The family has a history of heart disease -- according to the coroner's report, Stevens' father had his first heart attack at 49 and died of heart failure at 73 -- and cocaine use puts an additional burden on the heart and liver. (Stevens' liver was also enlarged.)

Still, his was a classic case of an addict who thinks his habit is under control. And had he not died in Fisher's house -- where the actress-author has given countless interviews about her own dance with addiction -- it is likely that Stevens' death would have gone unnoticed by the media. But while he was not a national figure within the GOP, he was known within the Washington Beltway for his zeal, ability and ambition.

Raised in San Clemente, Stevens was a Republican by birthright. As a 21-year-old college student, he was introduced to Drew Lewis, who helped run Ronald Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign. After working for Lewis, Stevens joined the Bush-Quayle campaign in 1988, where he lined up speakers. During the first Bush presidency, he managed field offices for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. He returned to California politics as the financial operations manager for the California Republican Party during Sen. Pete Wilson's 1990 gubernatorial campaign.

Like some young activists who come to Washington with curiosity and ambition, Stevens gravitated to the intrigue and allure of foreign affairs. Within 10 years of his first foray into politics, he landed a job at the international Washington lobbying firm of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly. The firm represented Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Angolan rebel group UNITA and a darling of conservatives.

Before long, Stevens found himself working to elect political leaders in places like Nigeria. By all accounts, he thrived on the work. After Black, Manafort dissolved, Stevens landed at Barbour Griffith & Rogers, ranked by Forbes as the top lobbying firm in Washington. The place was well connected to GOP rainmakers; Haley Barbour, the lead partner, was the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Barbour is now the governor of Mississippi.

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