CONDIT denies wrongdoing, sidesteps sex questions; Levys' lawyer says he's hiding something

Friday, August 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CERES, Calif. (AP) _ Capping a publicity blitz that ended months of public silence, Rep. Gary Condit denied involvement in Chandra Levy's disappearance and sidestepped questions about whether they had an affair. The Levy family lawyer said Friday her parents were angry and believe ``he's hiding something.''

Condit's comments also got an icy reception from many constituents, though some rallied behind him.

In his first broadcast interview since the intern disappeared, Condit, 53, fielded a series of blunt questions Thursday from ABC's Connie Chung, who repeatedly asked him if he had a sexual affair with the missing 24-year-old intern. He said only that they had a ``very close'' relationship and said ``people are entitled to some privacy.''

He offered no apologies for his involvement with Levy or his level of cooperation with police.

``I've answered every question truthfully. That's what you're supposed to do when you're cooperating with the police,'' Condit said.

Condit said he met Levy in October and they spoke several times a week by telephone. He said he wasn't in love with Levy, but liked her very much.

The seven-term Democratic congressman disputed several points that have been made by Levy's relatives since she was last seen April 30. Most significantly, he denied lying to Levy's mother about the nature of his relationship with her daughter, a constituent of his from Modesto who came to Washington for an internship with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Condit's account was immediately challenged by both Washington, D.C., police and the intern's family.

``Mrs. Levy was outraged,'' said Billy Martin, lawyer for the parents, Dr. Robert and Susan Levy. ``She's very clear that she told Gary Condit, she asked Gary Condit, `Were you, Congressman, having an affair with my daughter?' and the congressman said no. That is not a mistake. That is an outright lie.''

``He's hiding something,'' Martin said on NBC's ``Today'' show. ``Why he's hiding something I don't know. But we continue to believe he has a lot of information he can offer on Chandra's disappearance and we'll continue to investigate.''

Terrance W. Gainer, Washington's deputy police chief, disputed Condit's assertion of complete cooperation with investigators. ``It took us three interviews and a lot of effort to get as far as we got,'' he said.

The ABC interview was part of a campaign, including a letter to constituents and other interviews, that Condit's advisers hoped would bolster his flagging popularity.

The move fell flat, said Bruce Cain, a University of California, Berkeley, political scientist, who thinks Condit was ``horrible'' in the interview. ``I just got irritated watching the thing. I thought he came across as incredible, insensitive, evasive, uncooperative.''

In Condit's district, Merced bar owner Mike Maloney watched Condit on TV with his patrons. He called Condit ``overprepared and a bit too slick.''

Wendy Crabb, 29, an executive assistant from Modesto who has voted for Condit, said she was ``embarrassed and appalled by his lack of admittance and his shying away from the questions.''

Another former supporter, John Mensonides, said, ``I was hoping to see some humility and some candor and instead we saw evasiveness and arrogance.''

Not all reaction was negative. About 60 supporters held a rally in Merced, 40 miles south of Ceres.

``I thought he cleared up some misinformation, I thought he was honest,'' said Sandra Lucas, Democratic chairwoman in Stanislaus County, which is in his district. She said she thought Chung ``pressed the affair thing to the point of boredom.''

In the interview, Chung began with a series of blunt questions about Levy's disappearance. Condit denied he had anything to do with it, knew anyone who wanted to harm her, or had caused anyone to harm her.

``Did you kill Chandra Levy?'' Chung asked.

``I did not,'' he said.

Condit, who sat almost knee-to-knee across from Chung, kept his composure throughout the sometimes-contentious half-hour interview. His wife and two grown children watched from a monitor in a nearby room.

Asked repeatedly, Condit would not say whether he had sexual relations with Levy.

``I've been married 34 years. I have not been a perfect man. I have made mistakes in my life,'' he said. ``But out of respect for my family, out of a specific request by the Levy family, it is best that I not get into the details of the relationship.''

Condit criticized flight attendant Anne Marie Smith, who has publicly asserted she had an affair him, saying Smith had ``taken advantage of this tragedy. She didn't know Chandra Levy. So she gets to have her moment of publicity, of financial gain. And I'm puzzled by that.''

Condit spent the week trying to tell his story, first conducting an interview with People magazine Tuesday at a home in Beverly Hills. He also talked to KOVR-TV of Sacramento and did other print interviews.

In the People interview, he offered to sit down alone with the Levys ``to talk about anything they want to talk about.''

In an interview with the Merced Sun-Star conducted after the ABC taping, Condit said it might have been a mistake not to have spoken out earlier.

``In hindsight, maybe I should've,'' he said. ``Maybe people wouldn't have been so critical of me. But I did everything that I thought I was supposed to do as an American citizen.''

Condit said the media scrutiny became so intense earlier this summer when he submitted DNA samples to authorities that he ``snuck off somewhere and met a police officer in a parking lot late at night'' to give him the tissue.

He told KOVR he would announce within the next few months whether he'll run again in 2002.

Karen Johnson, a 43-year-old Modesto business owner, was bothered that Condit didn't discuss the details of the relationship with Levy, saying he was ``evasive in his answers, and my perception is that his bigger interest is in protecting his own interests. I'm disappointed.'' Johnson said she would not vote for Condit again.

Condit is certain to be pressed further about his involvement with Levy, but supporters believe he has told enough.

``I don't have a need to know what Gary did with Chandra Levy. We're not voyeurs; we don't need to know,'' said Lucille Mejia, who attended the pro-Condit rally.