Will arrest in Chandra Levy case give Gary Condit a new start?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2009 

US NEWS CONDIT KRT

Gary Condit in 2001.

CHUCK KENNEDY / MCT

WASHINGTON — The issuing of an arrest warrant Tuesday for the man suspected of killing Chandra Levy is cold vindication for former Congressman Gary Condit, whose long political career cratered in the wake of Levy's 2001 disappearance.

The arrest gives Condit an opportunity to re-enter public life, this time as a critic of media sensationalism and past police missteps. It also comes, though, as his financial prospects appear bleak and encumbered by courtroom losses.

"The media focus on Condit was good for newspaper sales and television ratings," noted Condit's former chief of staff, Mike Lynch, who added, "That said, Condit, his lawyers and staff did not handle this well."

In a statement, Condit took his own shot at how "insatiable sensationalism" had perverted the original investigation into Levy's disappearance. He made clear his intention to tell his own story; including, by some accounts, the possibility of writing a book.

Starting public life as the mayor of Ceres, Calif., at age 24, Condit rose through the political ranks to win his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1989, at age 41. He was gaining more Capitol Hill influence by the late 1990s, particularly as a close ally of then-California Gov. Gray Davis.

Never a police suspect in Levy's disappearance, Condit nonetheless captured public attention and considerable opprobrium for how he handled the matter. He told investigators in the summer of 2001 that he was sexually involved with the younger woman, but he's always offered a cramped definition of their relationship.

"Did your relationship ever become a romantic relationship?" attorney Paul LiCalsi asked Condit in a September 2004 deposition.

"No," Condit replied.

The revelations about Condit's private life and broader dissatisfaction with his handling of the Levy case led to his loss in a 2002 Democratic primary to former staffer Dennis Cardoza, who now holds the 18th Congressional District seat.

Lynch has long since moved on and now works as a political consultant based in Modesto, Calif. Other alumni of Condit's House office likewise have made new lives, in positions ranging from California's Office of Homeland Security to working with Cardoza.

Condit, though, has struggled to find his way in a world in which his reputation appeared toxic. Now 60, he's been all but foreclosed from using the political and governmental experience he accumulated during three decades as an elected official.

"When you're tainted by someone who calls you a murderer, and (says) you've had something to do with a kidnapping, people are apprehensive about taking you on board because there are political consequences to them," Condit said in the 2004 deposition.

The deposition was taken as part of a defamation suit against author Dominick Dunne, one of at least half a dozen lawsuits filed by Condit or his wife, Carolyn. The Condits secured apologies in some cases, as well as settlements that haven't been made public, but they also lost some cases outright.

Condit's declining fortunes are captured in a handwritten appeal filed earlier this month with a federal court in Arizona.

The 15-page appeal, written on lined paper by Condit's son and political adviser, Chad, challenges an earlier U.S. District Court decision ordering the Condit family to pay Baskin-Robbins at least $44,000 plus legal fees for breach of contract. The ruling came in a lawsuit that the ice cream company filed after the Condits failed to meet their reporting and payment obligations in running two Phoenix-area stores.

The Condits' first attorney in the Baskin-Robbins' case left; she was replaced by another, who declined to file the appeal. That left further legal business up to the Condits themselves.

"Defendants never received the support or more importantly the training to perform the essential duties to meet obligations and avoid this mean-spirited litagation (sic)," Chad Condit wrote.

In addition to the $44,000, court filings show that Baskin-Robbins is seeking about $64,000 in legal fees and associated costs.

The company isn't alone in feeling shortchanged.

Attorney Deborah Drooz, who succeeded another attorney in representing Condit in a failed defamation suit, noted in a legal filing last July that her firm was still owed $93,000 for its work. Drooz reported having a hard time reaching Condit about payment. Condit also owes $43,680 to a small Arizona newspaper that won dismissal of another defamation lawsuit that the former congressman filed.

Now, as reporters and television producers come calling on Condit again, some hope that the air finally can be cleared. His former attorney, Abbe Lowell, said that the arrest warrant "should give the Levys the answer and closure they deserve and removed the unfair cloud that has hung over the Condits for too long."

Prosecutors, though, defended the attention they paid to Condit.

"It's entirely appropriate, reasonable and rational to look to those who had contact with Ms. Levy," U.S. Attorney Jeff Taylor said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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