City Paper is not for tourists
It was among the last things you would have expected to hear about Armstrong Williams. Stephen Gregory claims that Williamsthe former radio-show host, sometime confidant of Clarence Thomas, and current columnist, public-relations exec, and black Republican poster boysexually harassed him for nearly two years. Gregory started as a volunteer errand-boy for Williams, but by the time he was fired last August, he was the producer of The Right Side, Williams’ now-defunct radio program.
In a lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court, Gregory says the abuse began with simple hugs and commentsnothing as creative as, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?,” but, rather, inappropriate advice about his girlfriends. The complaint alleges that over time the harassment grew much worse, and eventually Williams was allegedly grabbing his crotch in the office and hopping into bed with him on business trips. The lawsuit further alleges that Williams even unveiled his penis for Gregory on a visit to Williams’ boyhood home in South Carolina.
Gregory says Williams eventually fired him because he consistently rejected Williams’ advances; on two occasions, he says, he even threw a predatory Williams to the floor.
Rubbish, Williams has said repeatedly. Although Williams refused to answer specific questions about the lawsuit, he did provide three general written statements about the case and also made a statement in a brief phone conversation. His lawyers did speak about some of the specifics, and last week they filed a formal answer to Gregory’s complaint in Superior Court. Finally, several of Williams’ friends and current and former employees defended him in interviews, most of them with Williams’ blessing.
Williams and his defenders keep it simple: Williams never sexually harassed Gregory. There were no suggestive hugs, no kisses, and most certainly no penis showings. Ever. Period.
In the court response and in interviews, Williams and his allies also claim that Gregory was an inept, dysfunctional employee who was ungrateful for his job at Williams’ media and PR firm. Williams says Gregory is angry because he was fired for his history of habitual lateness, failure to complete work, dishonesty, and misuse of a company credit card.
“The bottom line is that Mr. Gregory, a person who I tried to help at every turn, was terminated for his professional ineptitude,” Williams wrote in a signed statement faxed to Washington City Paper. “It saddens me that he would now stoop to such low standards because of his own inadequacies. If Mr. Gregory wants money he should get a job.”
So far, the story has ended there. After Gregory’s lawyer, gay-civil rights attorney Mickey Wheatley, called a press conference on April 10, reporters from both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post spent some time looking into the case.
But the Journal story was killed, and the Post ran only a fizzy blurb in the Reliable Source. Legal Times also ran a little item. Although reporters can’t seem to get enough (heterosexual) sexcapades into printthe New Yorker even published a long story this month on a dead Cabinet secretary’s mistressno one has asked the hard questions in the Williams case:
Is Williams, a rock-ribbed, anti-gay conservative, actually gay himself? Had the spinmeister who defended Clarence Thomas so publiclyhe branded Anita Hill a “sister [with] emotional problems”done to Gregory what Thomas allegedly did to Hill?
Or is Gregory a gold-digging liar, one of the innumerable terminated employees each year who lash out at their former bosses with fabricated lawsuits? And is his lawyer merely using Gregory to win press attention, needle an anti-gay commentator, and spotlight one of his legal specialtiessame-sex sexual harassment?
The questions are worth asking, especially if the allegations are going to be reported in the first place. Denuded of context, Gregory’s claims resonate only as cheap gossip. With a little investigation, a more nuanced story emerges.
But in the end the issues all come down to one, necessarily cynical, question: Who is lying? The answer, unfortunately, is unclear. But both men, and their lawyers, seem to be hiding something.
I meet Stephen Gregory for the first time in Wheatley’s high-ceilinged living room, in a spacious Le Droit Park row house Wheatley and his lover Randy Brown are redecorating. (“Remodeling,” Wheatley gently corrects me.) Boxes of legal documents are stacked on one side of the room, and Gregory sits on the other side in a high-backed reading chair. Wheatley and I share the couch and a bowl of cashews.
An attractive man wearing a big green jacket he never removes for the three hours we talk, Gregory has soft, fidgety hands adorned with three silver rings. He has a killer smile.
Wheatley advised Gregory never to speak with me alone, so nearly all of our conversations over the last few weeks were mediated by Wheatley. The 41-year-old lawyer grew up in Los Angeles and was, oddly enough, a bit regular on Happy Dayshe played one of the kids who hung out at Arnold’s all the time. Since then, he has represented more than 30 alleged victims of sexual harassment and has also worked with national gay-rights groups. “Before I had even passed the bar, I was doing [media] interviews,” he brags. More recently, his name has surfaced in the gay press because he’s representing a group of D.C. gay bars charged with sex violations.
Wheatley refused to allow me to tape-record our conversations because, he said, he would be able to dispute my notes later but not a tape-recording. I told him I take very good notes. He smiled: “No tapes.”
Wheatley is probably worried about Gregory’s less-than-perfect memory. Gregory contradicts himself on certain matters now and againglitches that will have to be ironed out if he ever faces a bulldog like Peter Axelrad in cross-examination.
Axelrad is Williams’ blue-chip lawyer, a large Canadian with a rotund voice and an overbearing demeanor. He crashed Wheatley’s April 10 press conference and even corraled the assembled reporters before Wheatley had a chance to begin. A thin, balding, mustached man and a tenor to Axelrad’s baritone, Wheatley had to ask Axelrad to let him begin his own media event.
But Gregory’s problems may run deeper. In interviews and in the lawsuit, Gregory and Wheatley offer the names of various corroborators whoat least when I question themdon’t corroborate.
A good example is Gregory’s story of how he met Williams, one of the few elements of the lawsuit that Williams also addressed specifically in his statements to me.
They met in November 1994that much they agree on. Gregory was working as a personal trainer at the YMCA on Rhode Island Avenue NW, where Williams was a member. That fall, Williams was looking for a trainer to sharpen his workout regimen. The way Gregory describes the time leading up to their first contact, Williams eyed him for several weeks.
Gregory says Williams eventually went to Larry Miles, a seven-year employee of the Y and a friend of both men, and asked if Miles could arrange for Gregory to train him. Gregory says Miles told him about Williams, but that he was busy with a large roster of other clients. He says he never called Williams, whom he had never heard of.
As Gregory tells it, Williams then pursued him for a month, badgering Miles until he finally pleaded, “Stephen, you’ve got to call this guy. He’s an important man, and he would be a good client.” Gregory says he relented, phoned Williams, and set up an appointment with him to discuss his training. He tells me that Miles will confirm his account, and he gives me Miles’ number.
Smoking a Salem on a recent dinner break from the gym, Miles bursts into laughter when told of Gregory’s account, which he calls “superbullshit.” First of all, he says, Gregory didn’t have so many clients he couldn’t use another. “To me, he wasn’t that booked up,” says Miles, 44, a D.C. native with a round, nervous face. He also says Williams never asked him about Gregory. “He just asked me to recommend a trainer. He didn’t know Stephen Gregory. I recommended Stephen [because] Stephen is all right with meand I knew he has a degree. I didn’t want to introduce [Williams] to just anyone.”
In his statement, Williams offers largely the same version, calling his alleged “eyeing” of Gregory “a lie.” The statement says “a YMCA staff member”presumably Milesrecommended Gregory.
The interwoven layers of deceit, exaggeration, and, somewhere, truth, are impossible to disentangle, even on this relatively minor point. Gregory appears to be less than truthful, but Miles admits that his loyalties are with Williams. He acknowledges that he had tried to get a job with Williams’ company, the Graham Williams Group, and that he was jealous when Gregory was offered employment instead. And though he says he likes both Gregory and Williams, he hasn’t spoken with Gregory since the lawsuit was filed. He says he has, however, talked with Williams several timesat least once about what he would say for this article.
Finally, Miles is visibly uncomfortable with the same-sex nature of Gregory’s charges: “[Saying someone is gay] is the ultimate put-down for a black man,” he says. He doesn’t want to believe his pal Williams is gay.
Whatever the case, Gregory and Williams eventually met for the first time at the Graham Williams offices, located at 2029 P St. NW, not far from the Y. According to Gregory and several others, Williams has a large office that faces onto P Street near Dupont Circle, the heart of the gay community. His office is decorated with pictures of his parents and siblings and of himself with various celebrities, mostly conservative luminaries.
Gregory says they first discussed Williams’ workout regimen but then shifted to more personal matters. “From that very first meeting,” the lawsuit says dramatically, “Defendant Williams began sexually abusing Plaintiff.” Gregory’s memory isn’t quite so clear:
First, he says, Williams “started asking about my sex life and about my girlfriend,” with whom Gregory was having problems at the time. Gregory then says Williams offered, without prompting, that he had been celibate for five years. (He apparently does this often: When former City Paper reporter David Plotz interviewed Williams for a flattering cover story [“Mr. Righteous,” 2/10/95], Williams told him, without having been asked, that he had been celibate for three years. Other acquaintances of Williams’ say he often mentions his celibacy.)
But when pressed, Gregory says Williams’ questions were “not really about my sex life”just about his “love life.” He says Williams told him about troubles with his own girlfriend and former fiancée, Emily Ragsdale of Phoenix, Ariz. “You don’t need her,” Williams allegedly said of Gregory’s girlfriend. “You can focus on work.” Then, Gregory says, Williams hugged him.
Even the most sinister interpretation of this exchange doesn’t sound abusive to me, and Gregory himself describes it only as “strange” and “weird.” “I’m not that anti to male affection that it was a problem,” Gregory says. To be sure, he firmly believes that Williams wanted to have sex with him from the very beginning, but Gregory seems to be overselling his case when he traces his harassment to his first meeting with Williams.
Williams’ lawyersAxelrad and Mary Coxdeny that Williams ever gave Gregory inappropriately sexual or personal advice about his girlfriend. “He just gave him advice as far as coming to work and being distracted and told him that he should concentrate on his work,” says Cox.
Others say Williams often engages his employees about their personal lives. “He really tries to create a family atmosphere,” says Michael Lewis, who worked as an accountant and marketer for Graham Williams until 1994 and remains friendly with Williams. “It’s a small company, and so that’s what he tries to do. He asks you a lot of questions. He’ll want to know what you’re doing. He’ll ask you about your problems.”
Regardless, Gregory now describes that first meeting as the beginning of a personal hell. “He told me he had to ask about my personal life because he was a celebrity,” Gregory says. “I fell for it hook, line, and sinker, and it was a big mistake.”
Gregory trained Williams at the Y for only a few weeks before he also began to volunteer for The Right Side. (He says Williams asked him more than once to come aboard; in a statement, Williams says it was Gregory who “expressed
an interest in a radio career and sought Mr. Williams’ assistance.”)
Gregory says some friends and family membersparticularly his fatheropposed the idea of his working for Williams because of Williams’ conservative circles. Williams had worked for years in Republican politics. He first came to Washington to work for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). During the Reagan administration, he served as a top aide to Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and later became Thomas’ frontman during the Anita Hill hearings. But Gregory says many of Williams’ employees didn’t share his political views. Besides, Gregory says, “I wanted to learn the business, and I had always loved radio.” (He calls majoring in exercise physiologynot communications”the biggest mistake I ever made.”)
Gregory helped screen callers to the program and performed other administrative duties. Within a few months, he was also traveling with Williams on speaking gigs and business trips. The Graham Williams Group paid his expenses, and he says he also received 10 percent of Williams’ speaking fees.
According to current and former employeesand people on both sides of the disputeit wasn’t odd for Williams to hire just-out-of-college volunteers as assistants. But Gregory’s academic background was unusual for the office. “Stephen didn’t have a communications background,” says Tangela Parks, who worked for Williams from 1994 until November 1996, when she left to be an auditor at a Maryland law firm. “We always kind of wondered what in the world he was doing there.” (Parks says she left Graham Williams on good terms and still speaks with Williams occasionally.)
Nonetheless, Gregory was promoted, first to a part-time position and eventually to a full-time job as Right Side producer. Former Graham Williams account executive Tracy Hymes found this strange. “I studied radio in college, and I thought, ‘Why is he producing a radio show?’” she remembers. Hymes and Parks both say they used to joke that “Stephen was getting paid to be Armstrong’s friend,” as Parks put it.
On the out-of-town trips, Gregory says, he and Williams always stayed in the same room. Parks, who says one of her duties was making Williams’ travel arrangements, confirms this in an affidavit she signed in support of Gregory’s lawsuit: Williams, it says, “would instruct me” to book only one room.
Parks and Hymes also say that Williams almost always had men travel with himnot the women in the officeand that Gregory was his most frequent travel companion. “He told me that he always felt more comfortable with the men in the office,” Hymes says. Parks says Williams made the same comment to her more than once.
She adds that Williams always seemed to want Gregory with him while traveling. “He would insist upon having Stephen go with him on trips that weren’t really necessary for Stephen to go on,” Parks says. “Stephen would say, ‘I need to be here preparing for your show. Why do you need me out there?’”
According to Gregory’s complaint, Williams became more and more affectionate during these hotel stays and at work. Though he can’t remember exactly when, Gregory alleges that Williams began to touch him more oftenpats on the shoulder, gentle hugs, slaps on the buttin the middle part of 1995. “It felt strange, but it was very subtle at first,” Gregory says. “I just tried to ignore it; like, ‘Oh, that’s just him.’”
But it got worse, according to Gregory. After their workouts at the Y, Gregory would drive Williams to work. He says Williams would often rest his hand on Gregory’s knee during these short drives.
Williams was allegedly even more aggressive when traveling. In the summer of 1995, according to the lawsuit, Williams tried to climb into bed with Gregory one night when they were staying at the Drake Hotel in New York. It was the first of “numerous occasions” in 1995 and early ’96 when Williams did so, Gregory says.
Gregory claims he would tell Williams to get out of his bed. On several occasions, he said, he shoved him from the bed. “It was terrible,” Gregory says. “It was literally like I was fighting off a woman.”
Gregory says Williams also expressed his attraction in other ways. For instance, Williams began buying him clothes, Gregory says. “He said he couldn’t have me looking like a bum,” Gregory recalls, and on frequent trips to New York, Williams allegedly bought Gregory a Pierre Cardin trench coat, three suits, myriad ties, and other items. Gregory says he was torn about what to do. He needed professional clothes, but it seemed inappropriate for his boss to buy so much. When he tried to give the coat back, Gregory says, Williams told him, “I’m just being a friend.”
A very good friend: Gregory says that on one New York trip Williams started an account at Bloomingdale’s in Gregory’s name, listing Williams’ Capitol Hill home as the billing address. Buy what you need, Williams allegedly told him, “and I’ll tell you how much you owe me later.” Today, Gregory sees that as “kind of like a traphe set a lot of financial traps for me.”
Another trap, Gregory says, was a car loan Williams co-signed; he says Williams promised to pay him for extra work so that the younger man could afford the payments on a Jeep. But eventually, Gregory says, Williams stopped giving him extra work, knowing that would mean Gregory would fall behind on his car payments, which he did. “He wanted to control me,” Gregory says.
Wheatley interjects at this point in the interview that gaining financial control over a victim “is classic behavior in sexual harassment cases.” Harassers do this so that their victims won’t have an easy out, Wheatley says.
Williams and his lawyers say these allegations are absurd. In the answer to Gregory’s complaint, they point out that Williams bought clothes for many of his young employees, both to help them financially and to make sure his workers looked professional.
“He had authorization for specific purchases [on Williams’ card],” Axelrad says, “but he apparently went out and did more, and the bills came in.” As for the car loan, Axelrad and Cox say Williams was simply doing Gregory a favor. They say Williams can’t be blamed if Gregory couldn’t make his payments.
As far as Williams’ fondness for Gregory as a travel partner, former colleagues say Gregory wasn’t the only co-worker to travel with Williams, although they admit he was probably the most frequent companion. They say Williams shared a room with all his traveling colleaguesnot in order to sexually harass them, but merely to save money.
“Armstrong just didn’t like traveling alone, period,” says Ebon Robinson, who currently works for Williams. Why? “Maybe because of security, whateverI don’t know.” But Williams never wants to pay for two hotel rooms, Robinson says.
“Armstrong is kind of cheap,” Parks agrees. (In 1994, according to D.C. Superior Court records, a landlord sued him for not paying $13,752.50 in rent. Williams denied in court papers that he had failed to pay his rent. A few months later, the two reached an undisclosed settlement before a hearing commissioner.)
But the disagreements over hotel, car, and clothes bills are all relatively minor in comparison with one major problem facing Gregory and Wheatley: No one besides Gregory has come forward to say that he (or she) was ever sexually harassed by Williams. Harassment experts say most harassers make a career of their abuse (think Bob Packwood). Even Clarence Thomas had another accusera woman who was never called to testify at the confirmation hearings. After a monthlong search, I couldn’t find anyone else who claimed to have suffered sexual harassment by Williams.
In fact, the other men I spoke with who have worked with or for Williams uniformly said they found the allegations inconsistent with their experiences with Williams. “It just doesn’t add up,” says former employee Michael Lewis, who says he stayed with Williams in the same hotel room “a couple of times….None of that stuff happened.”
Still, other victims may well exist. The vast majority of sexual harassment sufferers (according to one local expert, perhaps 95 percent in heterosexual casesand probably more in same-sex cases, which bring thorny questions of outing into the mix) never come forward. “There’s a huge chilling effect,” says Deborah Epstein, assistant director of Georgetown Law Center’s Sex Discrimination Clinic. “Many people are very scared of retaliation, and the anecdotal evidence suggests they have every reason to be.”
Gregory and Wheatley also emphasize the fear that other victims may be experiencing. “Armstrong is a very powerful guy, and a lot of people don’t want to offend him,” says Gregory. “People get scared of his machine.”
In the lawsuit, Gregory and Wheatley suggest that another victim does existone who may not be afraid to speak out. “[Gregory] later learned that Defendant Williams’ other producer, Ebon Robinson, was also getting kissed on the cheek by Defendant Williams,” the lawsuit says. Gregory urged me to call Robinson.
I tried to reach Robinson for several days at his Maryland home before he finally returned my call, from his desk at Graham Williams.
“I just want to get the truth out,” he says.
At Robinson’s suggestion, we meet at Afterwords, near Dupont Circle, on a Friday afternoon, and Robinson walks in wearing an unseasonable turtleneck and black long-sleeve shirt. He orders a glass of merlot.
I explain that I think a lot will hinge on his testimony, since his corroboration would do wonders for Gregory’s case.
But it turns out that Robinson doesn’t claim Williams sexually harassed him. In fact, he says Williams never kissed him, even in a friendly manner. “It just didn’t happen,” he says. What’s more, Robinson echoes Williams’ theme that Gregory was undependable, frequently late, and lazy. “I remember he would say, ‘Let’s just wing it,’ and in radio, you can’t do that,” Robinson says.
He also says Gregory misused his company American Express card by using it to pay for a Los Angeles hotel room against Williams’ orders. (Gregory says Williams didn’t object to his staying there until after the AmEx bill arrived. It was another example of Williams’ financial manipulation of him, Gregory says.)
Whatever the case, Robinson also claims Gregory was constantly asking to go on trips. “The guy wanted to travel,” Robinson says. “There were times I was scheduled to go, and Stephen wanted to go, so I let him go.” He says Gregory even expressed interest in going to the Republican National Convention last summer, while the lawsuit says Gregory refused to travel with Williams after April of last year.
Finally, Robinson and other Williams defenders say Williams felt more comfortable traveling with men not because he wanted to touch them but because he wanted to avoid any awkward situations with female employees. “Armstrong, you gotta understand, he went through this thing with Justice Thomas and Anita Hill, and the man was paranoid about having women employees travel because, ironically, he was afraid, you know, that he would have another Anita Hill on his hands,” Robinson says.
In general, then, Robinson emerges as a staunch ally of Williams. But after a long interviewand a second glass of winehe did admit to me that he knew Gregory was unhappy with Williams’ physical behavior. Robinson says Gregory confided to him at the time that Williams was constantly hugging him. “I did hear that,” he says. “I was just like, ‘You know how Armstrong is.’”
“How is he?” I ask.
Robinson shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “He can be very, like, [full of] energy, and he’ll, like, grab you. He’ll grab your arm. He’ll do it to anyone,” he says. But Williams doesn’t kiss men, Robinson insists, and the hugging is clearly nonsexual. “It’s nothing like where you feel like, ‘Oh, this guy is weird.’”
Once again, only Gregory and Robinson know what the truth is. Robinson clearly wants to remain close to Williams, and he reported back to Williams many of the questions I asked and the angles I was pursuing.
When told of Robinson’s refusal to corroborate the lawsuit, Wheatley and Gregory insist that he has changed his story to please his employer. “He told me Armstrong was kissing him. He told me!” Gregory says. “Now he just cares about getting into business school with a recommendation from Armstrong.”
Robinson says he has already been admitted to business school and that he is leaving Graham Williams soon. “There’s no pressure on me to toe the company line,” he says. Robinson is also willing to criticize Williams: “We’ve all had our ‘I hate Armstrong’ days,” he says, adding that he has been “fuming” at times because Williams demands long hours and occasionally throws “tantrums.” He also calls some of Williams’ views (specifically, those concerning homosexuality) “fucked up.”
Williams has written that “homosexual activity” is “unhealthy” and that “powerful homosexual interests staunchly resist the implementation of disease-control measures in order to protect their often closeted, promiscuous lifestyles.”
But Gregory’s allegations come down to this for Robinson: “If I was getting fondled, I would not stick around for two years. That just doesn’t make sense. Why would he stick around?”
The last few years have been a financial struggle for Gregory. His parents are divorced; his father now lives in D.C. and his mother in Oakland, Calif. He came to Howard as a freshman in 1986, and, he told me in our first meeting, he graduated in 1992 with a degree in exercise physiology.
When I made a routine call to Howard to check this out, spokeswoman Donna Brock said the university had no record of a Stephen Lee Gregory, birthdate July 12, 1968, ever graduating, although she did confirm that he attended. When I told Gregory, he said he’d never told me that he actually graduated.
“He told you that he had finished his classes but that he owed them money,” Wheatley testily interjected during a conference call. (In fact, Gregory had mentioned his debt to Howard, but he clearly said he had a degree.)
At any rate, after Howard, Gregory couldn’t afford graduate school and had to take the job at the Y. It was a depressing time for him, and court records show that he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in May 1993. He was never prosecuted but says he agreed to take a remedial driving course.
His financial needs at the time fouled his judgment, he says, and he tried to ignore Williams’ sexually suggestive behavior because he was finally getting ahead. But by early 1996, he couldn’t take it anymore. “At least once a week,” the lawsuit alleges, “Defendant Williams would grab Plaintiff’s buttocks or penis when Plaintiff was least expecting it. Plaintiff would jump away, startled…” Gregory says he started wearing his shirttails out so Williams couldn’t grab him, but Williams always ordered him to tuck his shirt in.
Gregory says he felt trapped. He had to pay rent and car payments and remained in debt. Quitting was simply not an option. But he seethes at the notion that he did nothing to stop Williams’ harassmentthat he simply “took it” for two years.
He says he pushed Williams away. He screamed at him. He told Williams he could no longer train him at the Y. He stopped attending church with Williams and sleeping over at his house, which he admits he did several times because Williams often insisted on it under the pretext that Gregory was always late for early-morning meetings.
He says Williams tightened the financial screws in retaliation. Williams allegedly stopped paying Gregory $800 a month to work on a weekend project, and he stopped paying Gregory 10 percent of Williams’ speech honoraria. Gregory’s income then declined from nearly $50,000 yearly to about $35,000, and he began missing car payments, Gregory says. Gregory and Wheatley say these reductions constitute an illegal garnisheeing of Gregory’s wages, a point they plan to address in court. In their court reply, Williams’ lawyers say Gregory “was docked for arriving late” and that he had agreed “to deductions if he failed to perform his obligations.”
But the complaint also says that in May 1996, Williams transferred Gregory from Graham Williams to another office, where he was to work for Jack Roberts, the executive producer overseeing The Right Side and two other programs distributed by the Salem Radio Network. Gregory says, rather elaborately, that Williams hoped he would falter in a mostly white and very conservative atmosphere.
(In their court reply, Williams’ lawyers say Gregory was transferred to work for Roberts “in the hope it would improve his poor performance.”)
Interestingly, the lawsuit identifies Roberts as Oliver North’s producer, but Roberts says he was a producer for the Salem network and worked for North only in the same capacity in which he worked for Williamsas a general overseer. “There was no reason to bring Oliver North’s name into [the lawsuit] except for his publicity,” Roberts says. “I called [Wheatley] and told him I thought it was unfair to put North’s name in there, and he did it anyway.”
And while the lawsuit says Williams told Roberts to “stay on [Gregory] and be strict,” Roberts says he doesn’t remember being told that. He also says he doesn’t recall Williams’ ever pressuring him to fire Gregory, as Gregory contends. “I don’t recall that Armstrong was viciously doing anything to people or anything like that,” he says. He refused to sign an affidavit in support of Gregory’s claims.
Whatever the case, by spring 1996, Gregory says18 months after he met Williams and about nine months after Williams allegedly tried to get into his bed for the first timehe began looking for another job in radio. “I didn’t take so long to fight back or to leave,” he says. “It just took me some time to fight for my life back. I had to find a new job and all that. I couldn’t just leave.”
It all ended in August, Gregory says, when it became apparent that Roberts wouldn’t fire him. “Jack Roberts liked me, and it made Armstrong mad,” Gregory recalls. So Williams called him into his office one morning and terminated him. The lawsuit says Gregory asked about a severance package only to be told by Williams to “find someone else’s nipple to suck on.” But in our interview, Gregory says Williams did later offer him $1,000 in severance, as long as he signed an agreement to keep all aspects of his employment at Graham Williams confidential. Gregory says he refused.
Although there are countless chinks in his story, Gregory seems like an earnest twentysomething who survived a terrible ordeal. His story is detailed, and he has alienated some potential employersfriends of Williams’ in the entertainment worldby telling it.
In addition, at the very least, Williams seems to be a difficult man to work for. Even Robinson and Lewis, Williams allies who don’t believe Gregory’s allegations, both agree that Williams can be nosy and sometimes doesn’t understand where work stops and leisure time starts. “His whole life is work,” Robinson says.
More seriously, former Graham Williams employee Hymes filed a complaint with D.C.’s Department of Human Rights in 1995 alleging that she’d been given poor assignments at Graham Williams and was eventually fired because of her gender. Hymes says Williams frequently gave plum jobs and travel junkets to the boys, even when the trips pertained to her accounts. She says she left Graham Williams after Williams told her not to return to work if she went to her godfather’s funeral in Connecticut. She went anyway.
Her Human Rights Department charge is still “pending investigation,” according to the department. Axelrad and Cox point out that Hymes never filed a lawsuit and never received any settlement. Cox notes that Hymes was the highest-paid employee at the time she left Graham Williams, “so that sort of undercuts her [discrimination] claim.”
But Kristin Berry, who worked with Williams as a ghostwriter and researcher for her then-boss, former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, goes even further in painting Williams as a disagreeable employer. “I witnessed that Mr. Williams was abusive to all of his employees, screaming at them,” she says in an affidavit.
Her affidavit also says that “Mr. Williams acted jealous of my friendship with Stephen Gregory.” Berry said in an interview that Williams once called her into his office and told her that Gregory had a crush on her. She says Williams would also call her into his office while he made phone calls, keeping her there, she believes, so she couldn’t talk to Gregory.
Berry also says that Gregory told her at the time that Williams was sexually harassing him. She says Gregory seemed depressed at work and that on at least four occasions Gregory called her from the road to tell her that Williams was touching him and trying to get into his bed. And she says another friend who worked for Williams and lived with him for a time told her that he locked his door at night for fear that Williams would come into his room to touch him. The man moved out “because he was uncomfortable being there,” she says. (I wasn’t able to locate him.)
Nancy McPhail, who has known Williams since 1983 and who met her current boss, conservative socialite Arianna Huffington, through Williams, called me unsolicited to say that she believed Gregory is lying. But she also admitted that Williams is “a very difficult person to work for.”
(Indeed, a half-dozen of Williams’ friends made unsolicited calls to City Paper, including one woman who said she was gay but didn’t want her name used. Their general themes all sounded very familiar, as if Williams had coached their responses. For instance, several of the callers underlined Gregory’s poor work habits, even those who had never worked with him.)
Moreover, former employee Parks calls Williams “manipulative” and says that “he tried to control everybody’s lives and schedules in the office.” Gregory’s mother Linda calls Williams “controlling”: She recalls a time in April 1996 when Williams phoned her to discuss her son’s itinerary on a West Coast trip.
“Armstrong [was] wondering whether or not I would be able to make it down to L.A. [to see Gregory] and if Stevie had discussed it with me,” Linda Gregory says. “I told Armstrong I really don’t think it was any of [his] business to make a follow-up call on behalf of my son. That was out of place.” Williams’ lawyers said they didn’t know whether their client had called Mrs. Gregory.
Finally, Williams seems to have archaic views on women. Parks and Hymes note that he often said women’s primary duties should be to raise children and help their husbands. “He didn’t want women in combat, and he didn’t think women should be police officers,” recalls Parks, who also says Williams always went to lunch with the men in the office.
Williams’ sexuality often came up during office bull sessions, according to Parks, Hymes, and Gregory, although no one raised the issue with Williams himself. “I’ve thought he was gay from the [entire] time I’ve known him,” says Hymes. Axelrad says his client is heterosexual, and Williams told the Post that he and Gregory “both are heterosexual men.” Williams’ allies says he is vulnerable to rumors that he’s gay because his strict religious upbringing and his rigid discipline prevent him from flirting with many women. “He is really an easy target for that kind of charge,” Lewis says.
An acquaintance who says she has known Williams since 1980 said that she had never seen him on a date with a woman and that he always seemed more comfortable around his male friends. Miles, the YMCA staffer who had known Williams for four years, says with a grin that Williams isn’t gay but “isn’t exactly a ladies’ man.” And current Graham Williams employee Robinson rather coyly puts it like this: “I don’t get that sense from him [that he’s gay]. I think he just has aI can’t believe I’m saying thisI just think he has a hard time with [long pause] people in general.”
I laugh: “You mean a hard time with women.”
Robinson smiles. “I mean, don’t put those words in my mouth. I would just say with people,” he says.
Williams’ lawyers are a strange pair of 56-year-oldsone the polished corporate lawyer, the other more a social activist than J.D. “My whole fight is for poor people,” says Mary Cox. Sitting in the posh conference room at Jackson & Campbell, Peter Axelrad’s firm, it’s hard to imagine he knows anything about poor people except that they beg outside his 20th Street NW offices.
But Williams has thrown the two attorneys together in a double-pronged defense. Axelrad speaks in legalese, rarely saying anything definitive other than blanket denials. He often ends sentences with vague, wordy disclaimers dressed up as specific answers: “I’m telling you specifically,” he says at one point, “that I don’t know. I told you I have to answer this suit in court, and I’m going to do that….So that’s my answer.”
Axelrad also rather ominously notes that Williams could sue City Paper. The lawyer asks whether I have “consulted with counsel about this story….We’re watching you,” he adds, “and we expect a balanced story.”
For her part, Cox focuses more on character assassination. She paints Gregory as a troubled young man being duped by a lawyer with a gay-rights agenda. She tells me to look up Gregory’s police record (I had already done so, turning up only the DWI arrest and a minor traffic violation), and she says Williams tried to find counseling for Gregory because he was fighting with his girlfriend.
Cox bolsters her claim that Gregory made up his story for financial gain by suggesting that Gregory’s father knew nothing of his son’s sexual harassment allegations, even up to the day of the press conference, when father and son stood side by side. “His father was shocked,” she says. (Stephen Gregory Sr. says he knew of the allegations long before the press conference, although he wasn’t sure precisely how Williams had touched his son until that day. He says he supports his son, and that he was surprised to learn that Cox, a longtime acquaintance, was representing Williams. “I hear she needs the money,” the senior Gregory says.)
Cox also says menacing forces have gathered to ruin Williams. “I see a conspiracy at work against Williams,” she says, suggesting that gay-rights groups are funding the lawsuit. “That’s ridiculous,” Wheatley says, noting that he isn’t representing Gregory for free. (He won’t disclose his fee, but Gregory probably can’t afford much.) Not surprisingly, Cox couldn’t provide any evidence for her theory.
Axelrad’s motives seem clearWilliams is undoubtedly coughing up hundreds of dollars an hour for an established lawyer from a swank firm. Axelrad has represented other high-profile clients in the past, including Washingtonian magazine and George Goldsborough, the Maryland lawyer accused in 1993 of spanking his secretary and kissing a client; Goldsborough’s law license was suspended. Williams hired a colleague of Axelrad’s two years ago to represent him in the Hymes matter.
Cox’s motives, on the other hand, are less discernible. Cox is best remembered for emerging from virtual anonymity during Marion Barry’s 1990 drug trial to become one of the mayor’s closest confidantes and loudest defenders. She sat next to him throughout the trial and ran for mayor herself that year (she won 661 votes). In 1988, she was a field organizer for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.
She says that although she probably disagrees with Williams on certain economic issues, they share socially conservative views (she opposes abortion rights and is “uncomfortable” with same-sex and “even interracial” marriages). Both have written for News Dimensions, Washington’s black nationalist paper. She says she got involved in this case when the paper’s editor suggested to Williams that he call Cox for help.
But even if they’re an odd and rather furtive duo, Cox and Axelrad won’t have a hard time discrediting parts of Gregory’s lawsuit.
Consider this: Not a single individual named in the suit other than Stephen Gregory and the three women who signed affidavits for him (Parks, Hymes, and Berry) would confirm for me that the lawsuit accurately reflects their memories.
Ebon Robinson says Williams never kissed him. Jack Roberts says he can’t remember any of Williams’ alleged remarks about Gregory. And the lawsuit’s entire claim of defamation hinges on one personCheryl Cooper Barnes, who works for the American Association of Retired Personswho told me she was “quite shocked” to hear that she had been named in the lawsuit. It alleges that Williams told Barnes that Gregory was “irresponsible, immature, and [had] a lot to work on.” Barnes wouldn’t comment further, though she didn’t actually deny that Williams had said those words.
In our interviews, Gregory urged me to contact several others who might corroborate parts of his story. None of them did. Gregory says former producer Griffin Jenkins told him that he should “be careful” (Gregory and Wheatley didn’t put thiscomment in the lawsuit). Jenkins says today that this is “absolutely not true….I completely don’t believe any of Stephen’s allegations.”
Gregory also says the former employee who lived with Williams for a while and allegedly locked his door at night is “the key” to his case. But my calls to the man’s mother in San Diego went unreturned. (Gregory says the former housemate will testify in his favor when subpoenaed.)
At my urging, Wheatley also provided me the name and hometown of Williams’ ex-fiancée, Emily Ragsdale. “Now that’s a story,” Wheatley said with a devilish smile: The scuttlebuttspread by Hymes, among othersis that Ragsdale broke off the engagement when she heard rumors about Williams’ sexuality. Ragsdale, however, denies this and says the couple mutually decided not to marry for career reasons. She runs a chain of funeral homes and other family businesses in Phoenix.
After a while, you get the feeling that Gregory and Wheatley seem to be hoping that something, anything, will stick. Their lawsuit even includes two paragraphs that seem designed only to tickle the media: One paragraph alleges that “a prominent basketball player” was “very jealous” of Gregory. The lawsuit continues: “Defendant Williams also indicated that he could get ‘affection’ from [the athlete], but that with Mr. Johnson it would go too far, and that Defendant Williams would rather be ‘affectionate’ with Plaintiff.”
Note that “Mr. Johnson” is not completely identified. I ask Wheatley about this, and he calls it, unconvincingly, “a typo.”
The other tantalizing paragraph says that Williams told Gregory that “a prominent pundit had not had sex with his wife in five years, and that the pundit was in love with Defendant Williams.” Guessing, I ask Gregory if the “pundit” is Juan Williams, who features Armstrong Williams on his weekly TV show, America’s Black Forum. Gregory says it is Juan Williams, who calls the claims “an outrageous lie….Oh, get out of here. It’s craziness….It’s almost comical to me.”
Gregory and Wheatley say Robinson, Roberts, and Jenkins are lying. When I tell them that no one is corroborating their claims, they blame the Williams media machine for the deafening silence. “I don’t know if these people are going to lie on the stand, even if they’re willing to lie to you,” Gregory says. “They’re just afraid of making [Williams] mad.”
“I put [the claims] in the lawsuit because they were true, not necessarily because these people would say those things,” Wheatley adds. Uh huh. (“Mickey makes a lot of mistakes,” Gregory tells me in one of our few private conversations.)
Finally, Gregory tells me that I’m also getting spun nicely by Williams. “You’ve got to realize how you sound right now,” he says, meaning, I suppose, that I sound like a Williams drone. So Gregory gives me the numbers of two other former Graham Williams employees who will apparently confirm parts of his account, including the fact that “Williams was always looking at my butt.” I make the calls. Neither is returned.
Gregory will never receive the level of attention commanded by Paula Jones or the woman Marv Albert allegedly bit, partially because Williams’ star has faded somewhat in the last year. His radio show is dead and his national presence is rather small (50 syndicated papers and an uncertain viewership on the tiny National Empowerment Television network). But many editors are clearly squeamish about the story because it necessarily means exploring Williams’ sexuality. If Stephen were a Stephanie, you can bet that the Post’s Style section would have eaten this story for breakfast weeks ago.
On the other hand, few such cases ever become public, and it’s a measure of Williams’ fortitude that he didn’t simply pay Gregory go-away money. One friend of Williams’ told me he has made several anguished calls to her about the decision to fight Gregory, and Imagene Stewart, another friend, says she can “see in his eyes that he’s hurting.”
But if professional flacks have a credo, it’s that any publicity is good publicity. (Williams, who according to three sources provides regular gossip to the National Enquirer in exchange for $1,000 a month, knows this maxim particularly well.) It’s hard to imagine that these charges have damaged Williams’ career, and many of his fans are probably all too willing to believe Cox’s conspiracy theory that the gay-rights movement has somehow orchestrated this lawsuit.
Williams also probably knows that the laws regarding same-sex sexual harassment are unclear. The Supreme Court announced just this week that it would decide whether laws barring sexual harassment at work even apply to employees of the same sex.
D.C. law may be friendlier to same-sex harassment cases, since the District recognizes gays and lesbians in its anti-discrimination statutes. But Gregory may not be able to take advantage of those laws since he says he is straight. Ironically, Gregory may lose not because no one will believe his story, but because a judge says he has no case.
I didn’t get a chance to ask Williams about any of these matters, since his lawyers advised him not to answer my questions. But one recent morning, I was surprised to hear Williams at the other end of the line. “I want you to know that one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is not to talk to you,” he says, the spinner beginning to spin. “You know I can’t answer any questions, but I just wanted to urge you to be fair….I ask that you not let anything that you might believe, what your preferences are, what your relationships are, affect what you write.”
I’m rather stunned. Williams has been told that I’m gay, and he actually has the gumption to raise the issue. Then he tries to bond with me: “My spirit said to call this man,” he says, calling me “my brother” and “my man.”
I laugh out loud. I decide that I don’t know whether Williams or Gregory is telling the truth. But as our conversation ends, I know Williams is lying about one thing: After weeks of faxed statements, calls from his friends, meetings with his lawyers, and now a personal lobbying effort, Williams informs me: “Look, my man, we don’t want to fight this in the press. I just wanted to give you a call and try to keep you on the right side.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.