March 29, 1998
Slick Willie or Slick Willey—choose your spelling! After former White House staffer Kathleen Willey told 60 Minutes that President Bill Clinton had groped her, ominous mutterings about “the end of the presidency” again found their way into newspaper and TV headlines.
Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky couldn’t do it, but gosh darn it, sincere Willey could. Wrong again. Clinton’s approval rating is 78 per cent. When it comes to sex scandals, the media and interest groups seem to be willing to accept anything at face value; even the movies say so.
Primary Colors is as much an indictment of our willingness to rush to judgment as it is an attempted satire of the life and foibles of the Clintons and their circle. It even has special meaning for British Columbia. (Warning: those who haven’t seen Primary Colors may want to read this at a later date.)
In the first third of the film, Stanton’s campaign for the democratic presidential nomination looks to be derailed after Susan Stanton’s former hairdresser Cashmere McLeod (gotta love that name!) claims to have a tape of sexually scandalous conversation with Stanton. Wagons are circled, Stanton gets his face slapped, and campaign damage control kicks in.
Later, Stanton’s chief campaign aide listens to McLeod’s tape and is overcome by a feeling of déjà entendu. After several replays he recognizes phrases and partial phrases of an innocent phone call he had with Stanton days earlier about coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation took place over a cell phone.
Stanton’s conversation was tapped, selectively edited and spliced together with McLeod’s voice. Voilà!—an affair manufactured out of thin air. The dénouement comes when Daisy, another aide, goes on Larry King Live with a similarly bastardized rendering of one of King’s cell phone calls to show what really happened. “The media owes Gov. Stanton an apology,” Daisy told King. “An innocent man has been smeared.”
By now, you’ve probably figured out the coincidental parallel. Like the fictional Governor Stanton, the real University of B.C. professor Don Dutton also fell victim to a charge of sexual impropriety, based in part on dubious taped evidence.
Grad student wannabe Fariba Mahmoodi brought Dutton before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on a sex charge, supported in part by a tape recording made at his home more than three years ago. Mahmoodi said Dutton’s stereo system recorded their voices onto a music tape.
Subsequent examination, however, showed that the tape had been doctored. As the Globe and Mail reported: “Experts digitized the recording of music and conversation, enabling them to erase some background noise and pick up the sound of a [third] voice at the beginning that had not previously been heard.” This allegedly incriminating tape was a composite of two tapes. The fact that Mahmoodi went to such lengths to manufacture incriminating evidence can only be called malicious.
In fact, the dubious nature of the tape was known as far back as 1995 when former dean of arts Patricia Marchak first investigated Mahmoodi’s complaints. As the Globe reports, Marchak not only found no evidence of sexual activity, she found that Mahmoodi engaged in conduct against Dutton that could reasonably be construed as extortion.
It staggers the imagination to think Human Rights Commission investigators didn’t know the tape was spurious. The charge against Dutton was brought in January 1997, two years after Marchak’s confidential report was released. How come the investigators didn’t find out about the report? How well did they investigate?
I have to assume the tribunal didn’t know the tape had been discredited, because if it did know—well, that’s too horrid a scenario to contemplate.
(Commissioner Mary Woo-Sims said the Dutton case was filed before the commission’s investigative body was separated from its judicial body, thus ensuring that the people who now investigate aren’t the same people who sit in judgment.)
Whatever transpired between Dutton and Mahmoodi has been shown to be non-sexual. Is it the case that any woman with a sexual assault story can go before the tribunal, and expect previously discredited evidence to be taken seriously just because she’s a woman and the defendant is a male person of authority? What are the rules of evidence, and how critically is that evidence examined before being accepted?
There is no reason for this hearing to go on when there are likely real cases of discrimination to adjudicate. Like Stanton, Dutton’s name has been publicly besmirched. The damage has been done.
There is a hopeful scene near the end of Primary Colors worth mentioning. A private investigator turns up embarrassing personal information on Stanton’s opponent, the PI’s former boss. She refuses to hand it over. She won’t publicly humiliate a man for having had moral failings that may have been embarrassing, but were not illegal, and certainly nobody else’s business. Of course, it didn’t stop the press from finding out in the end.
In the interests of honesty and decency, the charge against Dutton should be summarily dismissed, the tribunal should offer Dutton an apology.