Book excerpt

The Big Secret

Pete Earley

Tor/Forge

Big Secret, The
OneI'm watching a man who thinks this is going to be one of the happiest days of his life. I'm about to make it the worst.Information is power, especially in politics, especially in Washington, D.C. But it's only truly powerful if you know how to use it. My boss, United States Senator Leslie Homer DeLong, taught me this. In the decade that I've worked for him, he's taught me plenty. He's a Texan. A die-hard Democrat. And he's been a politician nearly all of his life. He first ran for election to a city council job in Tyler, Texas, after he returned from killing Germans in World War II. From there, he climbed the ladder to the nation's capital quickly. He's been a senator for seven consecutive terms. That's forty-two years! He likes to say that he learned everything he knows from another Texas Democrat: President Lyndon Baines Johnson. You can say what you want about this country's thirty-sixth president and the mess that he made in Vietnam, but early in his political career, Johnson was the youngest majority whip ever to serve in the Senate, and he was shrewd and tough enough to guide a civil rights bill through Congress at a time when the word "nigger" was still being spoken without embarrassment at fashionable Georgetown parties. My boss quotes Johnson all of the time. "Nick LeRue," he says to me--for some reason he always says both my first and last names--"if you want to survive on Capitol Hill, you've got to remember what LBJ used to tell me: 'I never trust a man unless I got his pecker in my pocket.'"Which, in a way, is what today is all about. My boss was double-crossedby another senator. The man sitting in front of me right now had nothing to do with it. He's a pawn, but it doesn't matter. He's about to pay the price.The man is wearing a charcoal gray pinstripe suit, tailor-made and pricey. His wife and their two kids--a boy about six and a girl about four--are sitting in chairs directly behind him and are also well dressed. The woman is the man's second wife and the kids are his second set. I know this about him, and much, much more. For example, I know his wife got caught stealing when she was thirteen years old. She's never told him. Her two best friends pressured her into stashing a bottle of Revlon's Fire & Ice fingernail polish in her purse. It cost ninety-five cents and she was stopped by a sales clerk trying to leave the store. I know these details because an FBI agent who interviewed the shop's manager told me about them.The man's name is Daniel Hertell and he has been nominated by the president to become a U.S. District Court judge in Mississippi. He and his family are appearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this morning for what should be a largely ceremonial confirmation hearing. The U.S. Constitution gives the Senate "advise and consent" powers over the president's choices for federal judges. It also reviews the president's nominees for U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshal jobs. It's all part of the "balance of power" that our forefathers put into place. Remember high school civics? Three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Checks and balances.The Judiciary Committee meets on the second floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Politicians like to name federal buildings after one another. The Senate has three office buildings and each is named after a former senator: Richard Brevard Russell, Jr.; Everett McKinley Dirksen; and Philip A. Hart, respectively. The words "Senate Office Building" are always tagged onto the address. Our committee meets in Room 224 Dirksen Senate Office Building. Since that's cumbersome to say, everyone uses the acronym SOB. That makes the committee's legal address: 224 Dirksen SOB.I've always thought adding SOB after a senator's name was fitting. But then, I've been accused of being a smart-ass.The committee hearing room in which we are sitting was built to impress. The ceiling rises fifty feet tall. A plush green and white carpet covers the floor and the walls are made of oak panels. Slabs of dark green marble line the base of the walls and the room's lighting comes from antique brass fixtures made in the shape of large Roman torches. Thecommittee members' rostrum fills one entire end of the hearing room. It's a half circle and resembles a judge's bench. In spite of its size, it's not big enough for the ten Democrats and nine Republicans appointed to our committee. There's only enough room for twelve to sit, not nineteen. Luckily, this hasn't been a problem because my boss prefers to work behind the scenes. By the time our committee meets, he's already resolved most of the controversial issues, so we rarely draw a full quorum. On most days, our members keep busy by attending other, more volatile hearings where they can be seen on television.The senators' swivel chairs behind the rostrum have thick cushions that make each senator look several inches taller than he is. My boss has a cushion twice as thick as everyone else's. I sit directly behind him and my chair doesn't have a cushion. I'm not an elected official. I've never run for office and never have wanted to. My title is Chief Investigator, Senate Judiciary Committee. But what I really am is a political detective whose specialty is investigating people's pasts and uncovering information that they would prefer to keep hidden. I have a top-secret security clearance and I can subpoena both records and witnesses--as long as my boss approves. That gives me virtually unlimited access to just about any record in the government and private world, and anyone living in the country.I began my career as an FBI agent and a lawyer. In Washington D.C., being a lawyer is essential because politicians, federal prosecutors, and federal judges prefer to speak to other lawyers. It's snobbery, but that's just how Capitol Hill operates. I can't think of another place in our nation where the virtues of the common man are praised more by people who have never thought of themselves as being common and make damn sure whenever you meet them that you quickly realize just how special they are.But I'm getting off track.This is how the nominations process works. After a new president is sworn in, he sends our committee a list of his nominees for federal judgeships. Most are attorneys who either have given big contributions to his political party or have worked in his election campaign. Some are state judges who are banned from engaging in partisan politics, but are buddies with the local Democrat or Republican bigwigs. It's all part of that ancient "to the victor belong the spoils" process.Now, if a president is savvy, before he sends a single name to our committee, he'll meet with all of the senators from his political party and toss them a bone. If a state needs four new federal judges, for example, a politicallywise president will let a senator fill one of those spots. It's called trickle-down patronage.But our Republican president didn't do that. He never bothered to meet with a single senator. None. So several of them complained to my boss. The result: The first batch of judge nominees from the White House is still waiting for our committee to approve it. The "paperwork" has been lost and I'm guessing it will never be found. After a few months of waiting, the White House realized what was happening and the president woke up and met privately with several Republican senators. He offered them a peace offering and that led to a second wave of nominees being put before our committee. Most have sailed through.My job begins after the president sends over his list of candidates. By that point, the White House should have already investigated each of its nominees. No one there wants to embarrass the president by nominating someone who once got caught cheating on his federal income taxes. As soon as I get the White House's list, I contact the FBI.Over the years, I've developed a tremendous admiration for the bureau's ability to burrow into a person's past. Okay, I'll admit I'm biased since I used to be one of J. Edgar Hoover's boys. But the bureau has vast resources. It not only uses all of the computerized federal records at its disposal, including limited Internal Revenue Service tax information, it also sends out agents to delve into your past. Remember that second-grade teacher who was your first crush, the camp counselor who caught you smoking in your cabin, the fraternity brother who got sloshed with you? The FBI finds them.By the time the bureau finishes its background check, it's collected hundreds of pages of personal information. I call it the "This Is Your Life" file and it's delivered directly to me.I'm responsible for warning my boss if I think there's anything politically damaging in the FBI report. Most of the time, there's not. But when there is, I take charge. My boss likes to handle skeletons quietly. Generally, he'll have a private chat with the senator from the nominee's home state. They'll agree to use what's called a "blue slip." It's a piece of blue paper that I send to each senator whenever one of his constituents has been nominated. If the senator conveniently "forgets" to return it, the nomination is lost forever in a paperwork netherworld. After a few months, the White House will quietly pull the nomination and submit a new name. Chances are, the media will never notice, and even if they do, there's no one to blame. After all, paperwork gets lost all of the time on Capitol Hill.Which brings me back to today's hearing and Daniel Hertell. This isnot one of those quiet, lost-paperwork nominations. About a month ago, my boss handed me a slip of paper with Hertell's name written on it."Do some digging," he said.I didn't ask why. If he'd wanted to tell me more, he would've. I pride myself on my sources and ingenuity. If a senator has too many shots of Jack Daniel's in an Old Town bar, I hear about it. If a senator's top aide pressures a congressional page for a blow job, I hear about it. If a senator's spouse buys two hundred thousand shares of a blue chip stock on margin and the stock jumps the next day by five points, I hear about it. My sources always have a reason for talking. Mostly it has to do with partisan politics or revenge. I always examine their motives for leaking me gossip. It's important to wonder: What's in this for them? Otherwise, you could get burned.It didn't take me long to figure out why my boss was curious about Hertell. The White House had given Mississippi's senator, Nehemiah Peterman, the right to pick a new Mississippi federal judge and Hertell was his choice. As soon as I realized Peterman was behind the nomination, I understood.Peterman is a brash know-it-all who arrived on the Hill less than two years ago after defeating a Democrat who had been a senator since the late 1960s. The old bulls don't like it when one of their own is slaughtered. It scares them. To make matters worse, Peterman had run an anti-Washington campaign. It's a popular tactic, but what folks like Peterman don't realize is that those nasty anti-Washington television ads that they run really do piss off the Washington establishment and, like it or not, the Washington establishment is still in power when a newly elected senator arrives in town.But what got Peterman into real trouble with my boss was a double-cross. Another senator, George Mathias, a Michigan Democrat, had introduced a bill that would have given auto workers an upper hand in their upcoming labor negotiations in Detroit. Everyone understood the bill was a publicity stunt. Mathias was simply kissing up to the auto unions. His bill was sent to a rather insignificant subcommittee for review and Senator Peterman happened to be on it. When Mathias asked the subcommittee to hold a public hearing, so he could get even more beneficial publicity, Peterman balked. That's when Mathias came to see my boss.At this point, I need to explain how the U.S. Congress actually works. First, forget most of what you were taught in civics. Instead, rent the movie The Godfather. Picture my boss and other powerful Senate leaders as the mafia dons of the Hill, just as Vito Corleone and the other godfathersran the mob's five families. The only difference is that my boss and his buddies cut their deals in the private steam room of the "Members Only" Senate gym or during eighteen holes of golf at the Congressional Country Club rather than over a plate of steaming linguine at Umberto's Clam House.I realize this may seem melodramatic. But it's true. Politics is the "art of compromise." Or, as Vito himself used to say, making an offer to someone he can't refuse.My boss had cut a three-way deal. Senator Mathias did a favor for my boss. In return, my boss did a favor for Senator Peterman. The next step was having Peterman help Mathias. But he didn't reciprocate. He promised that he would and then didn't.I'm watching Senator Peterman right now. He's seated next to Daniel Hertell in front of the committee at the witness table. He's delivering a prepared speech about his nominee."Not only is Daniel Hertell a legal scholar, he's also a Christian, and a solid family man with a loving, and might I add really attractive, wife," Peterman said. He paused and glanced over his shoulder at a blushing Dana Hertell.I've noticed that senators from the Deep South can get away with sexist comments like that. It's part of their cultivated Southern charm.Peterman continued: "Daniel and Dana Hertell have two beautiful and talented children. This family makes all of us proud to be Mississippians!"I could tell from Peterman's confident manner that he didn't yet realize that he'd walked into a trap. I'm certain part of the reason he feels cocky is because my boss isn't at today's hearing. The session is being chaired by Senator Harry Bannan, a Republican from Ohio. And right now, he's the only committee member seated at the rostrum. Everyone else stayed away. Being absent gives them "plausible denial." I love that term. It's so Washington. Translation: a believable lie. Later in the day, my boss will make certain that he "accidentally" bumps into Peterman. "Sorry," he'll say innocently, "to hear your nominee got jammed." Translation: "Hey, smucko, I'm the guy who stuck it to you!" Then he'll add: "If I'd been there, I'm certain I could have prevented you from being stymied." Translation: "Next time, don't double-cross me, you jerk!"So far, everything is going according to our plan.Peterman, still unsuspecting, finished his speech.Bannan said: "I have consulted with my fellow senators and none of them has any questions for Mr. Hertell."Peterman and Hertell both grinned. Home free. At least, that's whatthey thought. And then Bannan said: "But our committee's chief investigator has given me a few questions to ask."Peterman's smile vanished. No other judgeship nominees had been asked questions this morning."Excuse me, Mr. Chairman," Peterman announced, almost leaping from his chair, "but I'm due at another hearing, so I'm afraid I must leave now."Peterman shook Hertell's hand and hurried from the room.Coward, I thought.Bannan asked my first question. "According to the résumé that you gave the committee, you identified yourself as a Vietnam combat veteran. Is that correct?""Yes, I served in the Army during the war," Hertell replied.I looked for a sign that he was worried, but there wasn't any."Were you wounded?""Yes, during the Tet Offensive. It's embarrassing because I was hit with shrapnel in a spot I'd rather not mention, since there are ladies in the room. Let's just say I was on my stomach with my head buried in the dirt because of incoming mortar rounds and, well, I couldn't sit down comfortably after I was hit."The spectators in the hearing room laughed. It sounded to me as if he'd told that joke before."In addition to a Purple Heart, you were awarded a Bronze Star, according to your résumé, is that correct?""Yes, but I didn't get it because of Tet. I really don't like bragging, because all of us who served in Vietnam are forgotten heroes. However, I was awarded the Bronze Star because of an incident in the Quang Tri province. The enemy killed the man loading the M-60 machine gun that I was firing. But I just kept shooting somehow and I was told later that I was responsible for keeping the enemy from overrunning my platoon."Someone began to clap and soon everyone was. Bannan rapped his gavel."The Army called me a hero," Hertell continued, "but I don't think of myself that way. I was simply doing my job.""Really?" Bannan replied. If you listened closely, you could hear a touch of sarcasm beginning to rise in his voice. Bannan continued: "Isn't it true, Mr. Hertell, that you purchased your Bronze Star at a garage sale in Montgomery, Alabama, nearly twenty years ago?"Several onlookers gasped.Bannan didn't wait for a reply. Instead he said: "After you answer thatquestion, perhaps you can tell us how you were able to participate in the Tet Offensive when your military records reveal that you first arrived in Vietnam on April 28, 1968--two months after the Tet Offensive already had ended?"Hertell was now breathing fast. Beads of sweat popped from his forehead.Bannan moved quickly to pound in the final stake: "You might also like to explain why medical records that our chief investigator found reveal that your buttocks were cut when you slipped in the barracks while mopping a floor and landed on top of a metal bucket. There is no record of any shrapnel wound. Nor is there any record that confirms that you ever saw combat. You spent most of your career as a 'motion picture operator' at Subic Bay, Philippines."Hertell looked nauseous.In a flat voice completely devoid of emotion, Bannan concluded the attack that I'd scripted for him. "Is there anything you wish to say? Please remember you are under oath."Hertell shook his head, indicating that he didn't."Then I believe it would be in the best interest of our committee to table your nomination at this time," Bannan declared, rapping his gavel. "We'll now take a short recess."I watched Hertell's dumbstruck wife. The couple's children didn't understand but knew something had gone terribly wrong. A shell-shocked Hertell turned to face them while I exited through the door on my left that led into the committee's offices. Senator Bannan was waiting there. "My nephew was killed fighting in Vietnam and I hate those bastards who pretend they saw combat," he said. "Good work." Then he asked me: "Didn't you lose a brother in Vietnam?""Yes, Senator, I did," I replied. "He was older than me and my only sibling.""How the hell," Bannan asked, "did the FBI miss Hertell's fake medals?""Records dealing with Vietnam are difficult to check," I replied. "I don't know all of the reasons why. But there's even been a book written, called Stolen Valor, that exposes dozens of guys posing as Vietnam war heroes. One claimed he was a Medal of Honor winner!"My cell phone rang. "Nick LeRue, talk to me!" It was my boss. "Does Peterman's nominee sleep with the fishes?" Besides quoting LBJ, my boss loves Mafia-speak."Yes," I answered. "But Peterman jumped ship before Senator Bannan went in for the kill.""Was the media there?""The only reporter was from the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger," I said, "but Judith is calling Hartson now." Judith Delagold is the committee's public information officer. Ted Hartson covers the judiciary committee for the Washington Tribune, the most influential newspaper in the city."That'll teach that son of a bitch to betray me," De Long replied. "It was JFK who said: 'Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.' I admire that. But personally, I live by what LBJ said: 'I demand real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy's window, and say it smells like roses.'" He chuckled."Did you already know that Hertell had lied about Vietnam before you asked me to investigate him?" I asked."No, but I suspected it. A pal of mine overheard Hertell bragging at a veterans' meeting about Tet and what he said didn't jibe with what my friend, who was actually there, remembered. Gotta go." He hung up.The rest of the judicial nominees breezed through the committee that afternoon, although I noticed each one eyed me nervously. We finished around four o'clock. It was a Thursday, early June. When I returned to my office and looked outside, I noticed it had rained. Pedestrians were sidestepping puddles that would soon evaporate thanks to an oppressive summer heat wave. I love the smell of Washington D.C. after a hard rain. The air seems crisp. It's as if God reached down, grabbed this city, and scrubbed it clean.Maybe I'm getting too old for this job, I thought.For me, the glamour of Capitol Hill had waned years ago. The Hill devours starry-eyed innocents. Yet, there's never a shortage of fresh faces. The best and the brightest arrive in a never-ending stream.I blame Heather Cole for my cynicism. She left me two years ago. Of course, I've always pretended that the breakup hasn't affected me. Call it macho pride. But it did and has and still does. If I'm not working, I'm sitting in my apartment, eating take-out Chinese, and watching C-Span. Pitiful.In contrast, Heather appears to have fully recovered. She's a newspaper reporter for the Style section in the Washington Tribune, so it's easy for me to keep track of her. Political profiles are her speciality. She can cut off a puffed-up politician's cojones and hand them to him before he even realizes he's been emasculated.Recently, she's been living with Andrew Middleton, another writer at the Washington Tribune. Actually, he's much more than a writer. Middleton is one of the most famous investigative reporters in the nation. In the early 1970s, his reporting led to the resignation of a U.S. president. Since then, Middleton has written a half dozen insider books about Washington. Every one of them has been a blockbuster. He's broken lots of important stories. He's famous for his scoops. He's rich too. Few journalists in America are as powerful. I loathe him.It is nearly five and I'm scheduled to have dinner tonight with a good friend: Phillip Shurman. He's the FBI's congressional liaison officer, which means he spends his time prowling around the Hill trying to keep everyone happy with the bureau. He asked me earlier if I'd take him to eat at the Senate dining room, which is in the U.S. Capitol and exclusively reserved for only senators, their families, their top administrative aides, and the media. I'm not officially on that list but I still get in whenever I wish. Shurman has just returned from a family vacation and wants to catch up. I'm supposed to leave on vacation tomorrow but I really don't have anywhere to go.I used to walk from our offices in the Dirksen SOB to the U.S. Capitol, which is just across the street, but now there are too many waist-high concrete barriers around the Capitol property and too many security checkpoints. I use the underground trolley in the Dirksen's basement. It's one of a series of tunnels and trolleys that connect various congressional buildings. Tourists used to be able to ride the trams, but not anymore. September 11 changed that.I headed downstairs and strolled down a long corridor. For some reason I was thinking about how Daniel Hertell had looked when he had turned around in the hearing room and faced his family. I'd just reached the trolley's entrance when I heard a woman's voice call: "Nick LeRue!"I instantly recognized the voice. It was Heather. She was walking toward me. She looked magnificent. In her early thirties, she was short, fit, with high cheekbones, thick brown hair that's cut shoulder-length, and a killer smile. She seduces you with that smile. It makes you feel comfortable. She's the sort of person who always reminds people of a best friend, sister, aunt, or favorite neighbor.I'm still in love with her!For two years, I had imagined this moment. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, I'd rehearse dozens of lines: some clever, but most just mean. We'd lived together five years and I'd thought we'd always be a couple. I'd asked her to marry me and a month later, she'd moved out. I'd scared her, Iguessed. I'd convinced myself that it was her damn career. Workaholism is a disease in Washington. I wanted to move to the 'burbs, have kids, own a house. The American Dream. Apparently, she hadn't wanted any of that.As she stepped up to me, all of my clever one-liners went blank. I couldn't remember even one of them. All I could muster was: "Hello, Heather."She stuck out her hand to shake mine."I'm not Heather," she replied. "I'm Melanie. Melanie Cole. Her sister. I guess she never told you she had a twin. I'm not really surprised."She hadn't and I was. Flabbergasted!"I need your help, Mr. LeRue," she said. "Heather is missing. She's disappeared and someone is going to kill her!"Copyright © 2004 by Pete Earley Pete Earley is a former Washington Post reporter and winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar for Best Fact Crime Book in 1996 for Circumstantial Evidence: Death, Life, and Justice in a Southern Town. His book, which also won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, helped free an innocent man from Alabama's death row. Earley's account of the John Walker spy ring, Family of Spies, was a New York Times bestseller and CBS mini-series. The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison was a national bestseller and was based on a year that Earley spent inside a maximum security federal prison as an author.

Born in Arizona, Earley was reared in Colorado and worked for newspapers in Kansas and Oklahoma before moving to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., where he lives with his wife, Patti. They have seven children.