Ida "Maxie" Wells gossiped by phone about the sex lives of co-workers while she was a young secretary at the Democratic National Committee in 1972, but she testified yesterday that she wasn't helping run a DNC call-girl ring, as Watergate figure G. Gordon Liddy has suggested.
Wells told the federal jury hearing her $5.1 million defamation lawsuit against Liddy that she was mortified when she learned the Watergate burglars had tapped the phone she used, only because she didn't want her conversations about the social scene at Democratic headquarters to become public.
"There were a lot of people sleeping with each other at the Democratic Committee," Wells said. "I think there were a lot of things that people wouldn't have liked to have [had] broadcast. It was the early '70s -- it was the height of the sexual revolution."
Liddy, the convicted Watergate conspirator who is host of a conservative radio talk show, has suggested that Wells was using the phone to help operate a Capitol Hill prostitution ring. He claims that was the real target of the infamous June 1972 burglary.
The defamation trial, expected to last up to a month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, could allow a jury to weigh in on Liddy's theory of the burglary -- one of several that continue to be fiercely debated nearly three decades after the break-in led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon.
In opening arguments yesterday, Liddy's attorney said the lawsuit was an attempt to shut down any alternative theories about the scandal -- particularly Liddy's version, which contends that then-White House counsel John W. Dean orchestrated the break-in to try to conceal the fact his future wife was part of the alleged call-girl operation.
"Gordon Liddy's statements about Maxie Wells and her desk belong in any fair and open debate about Watergate and our history," said John B. Williams, who represents Liddy.
Wells' attorney blasted the theory as slanderous fiction, based on the word of a convicted felon who has a history of mental problems so severe that he once described himself as an alien in search of a spaceship to take him home.
David M. Dorsen, representing Wells, said Liddy knew that the story promulgated by former Washington lawyer Phillip M. Bailley was patently outrageous.
Bailley once claimed that reporter Diane Sawyer was part of the call-girl ring and that Maryland Del. Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County, then a DNC worker, was one of the operation's runners, according to court documents. Hixson is expected to testify in Wells' case to reject the entire allegation.
Dorsen, a lawyer on the Senate Watergate Committee in the early 1970s, said Liddy has repeated the so-called "prostitution theory" of Watergate, drawing large audiences and hiding behind the argument that it is part of a legitimate historical discussion.
"I submit that does not give somebody a license to say what Mr. Liddy has been saying about Miss Wells," Dorsen said in opening arguments. "In fact, quite the opposite. ... Mr. Liddy knew that because of his position as the leader of the Watergate break-in that people would listen."
Much of Wells' testimony yesterday focused on her life in 1972. After moving to Washington from her home state of Mississippi, Wells said, she was astonished by the dating scene at Democratic headquarters and regularly gossiped about it with girlfriends.
"I was just in total shock at the number of people who dated each other at the DNC and slept with each other at the DNC," said Wells, who described herself as a naive 23-year-old at the time. "This was just totally new to me."
Wells testified that she frequently called friends from the office of her then-boss, R. Spencer Oliver, executive director of the Association of State Democratic Chairmen. Oliver's phone was tapped by the Watergate burglars, and his line reportedly included repeated sexual conversations, according to deposition testimony from one of the Nixon operatives who listened in.
In the 1975 book "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years," author J. Anthony Lukas wrote, "So spicy were some of the conversations on this phone that they have given rise to unconfirmed reports that the telephone was being used for some sort of call-girl service catering to congressmen and other prominent Washingtonians."