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Arrest in Levy case vindication for Condit

Rep. Gary Condit stands with family and friends in front of his Ceres home and concedes the election in this 2002 photo.
Rep. Gary Condit stands with family and friends in front of his Ceres home and concedes the election in this 2002 photo. Modesto Bee file photo by Al Golub

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 California political career cratered in the wake of Levy's 2001 disappearance.

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

"The media focus on Condit was good for newspaper sales and television ratings," Condit's former chief of staff Mike Lynch noted, adding that, "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 his clear his intention to tell his own story; including, by some accounts, the possibility of writing a book.

Starting public life as Ceres mayor at the age of 24, Condit rose through the political ranks to win his first House seat in 1989, at the age of 41.

He was gaining more Capitol Hill influence by the late 1990s, particularly as a close ally of then-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 he was sexually involved with the younger woman, but he has 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 his former staffer Dennis Cardoza, who now holds the 18th Congressional District seat.

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

Condit himself, though, has struggled to find his way in a world where his reputation appeared toxic. Now 60 years old, Condit has 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 have not 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 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 filed by the ice cream company after the Condits failed to meet their reporting and payment obligations in the running of two Phoenix-area stores.

The Condit's 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 Baskin-Robbins is seeking about $64,000 in legal fees and associated costs. The company is not alone in feeling shortchanged.

Attorney Deborah Drooz, who succeeded another attorney in representing Condit in a failed defamation suit, noted in a July 2008 legal filing 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 had won dismissal of yet another defamation lawsuit filed by the former congressman.

Now, as reporters and television producers come calling again on Condit, some hope the air can finally 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.