Under the Hot Lights: Gary Condit's Cowboys

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Condit and his Washington administrative assistant, Michael Dayton

There are hundreds of Michael Daytons on Capitol Hill — bright, ambitious young people who go to Washington to do good and stay to do well. As Gary Condit's top man in Washington, Dayton is known more for his managerial skills than his legislative acumen. At 31, he also has a reputation as a smooth player. "Staffs come to resemble their members," says a senior congressional aide. "Condit's office had a kind of Steve McQueen cool. They were Blue Dogs" — members of the Conservative Democratic Coalition — "and on top of the world in a closely divided House. They had a kind of swagger, but in a good way. Everybody liked them."

These days Dayton has lost his swagger. As the Chandra Levy case drags on, Dayton finds himself under the hot lights along with his boss. Law-enforcement officials have questioned Dayton about whether he tried to hinder their investigation. Dayton denies any such thing. Still, he has retained a top Washington criminal-defense lawyer, Stanley Brand. Another top Condit aide, chief of staff Mike Lynch, who publicly denied the affair in the weeks before Condit admitted it to the police, has hired ex–Timothy McVeigh prosecutor Beth Wilkinson. (Lynch has not been questioned recently, a source tells TIME.) Suddenly the investigation isn't just about Condit but about his entourage as well.

Every member of Congress has a posse — people who, in addition to their day job, do the driving, gather the intelligence, tell the boss his floor speech was positively Jeffersonian. Authorities want to know whether Dayton's duties went beyond that. First they want to know what happened the night he reportedly drove Condit to a Virginia suburb to dispose of a case that once contained a watch that had been given to the Congressman by a former staff member, Joleen Argentini McKay. Second, they want to hear more about Dayton's recent conversations with McKay. McKay told USA Today that she had had an affair with Condit when she worked for him in the mid-1990s and that when the Levy story broke, she wanted to tell the FBI about her relationship in an effort to help find the missing intern. According to McKay, Dayton urged her to remain quiet, saying, "Leave it in the past, or it will ruin you." That could amount to obstruction of justice. (McKay said she went to the FBI despite Dayton's warning.) Dayton told reporters last week that McKay's version isn't true.

When McKay spoke to TIME last month, she didn't acknowledge an affair with Condit. But she did offer insights into the 53-year-old politician. She claimed that Condit's staff felt "betrayed" by his relationship with Levy and the fallout that followed. According to McKay, who was single and in her early 20s when she worked for Condit but is now married, the Congressman and his wife Carolyn "didn't have the typical relationship. It was more of a business relationship."

As McKay came forward to tell her story, lawmakers moved farther away from Condit. A fellow Blue Dog Democrat, Texas Representative Charles Stenholm, who sits beside Condit on the Agriculture Committee, issued a statement denouncing Condit. "Charlie's sick of seeing that clip on TV of him next to Condit," a fellow Blue Dog tells TIME. Indeed, the "Ag" committee has rarely been so packed with TV cameras going live — although the media horde trailing Condit somehow missed him leaving a late-night committee session last week to meet with the FBI and Washington police for a fourth interview. This time the questions were meant to help them compile a profile of Levy. Tabloid reports alleged that Levy and Condit's wife had shared an angry phone call in the days before Levy disappeared. D.C. police dismissed the report, but it was still the talk of Washington.

A source tells TIME that Condit is wrestling with how to spend the August recess. Does he go home and hide out? Does he face public scrutiny or take a vacation? Such suffering, of course, means nothing next to that of the Levys, who have endured nearly 100 days of agony. In a move born of frustration, Susan Levy, Chandra's mother, hinted that the family may sue Condit in civil court, although for now such a suit seems unlikely. And it felt like desperate, heartbroken hope when Chandra's mother stood outside her Modesto, Calif., home late last week and quoted Matthew 10:26 to reporters: "There is nothing concealed that would not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known." In the Levy case, revelations still seem a long way off.

With reporting by Laura A.Locke/San Francisco and Michael Weisskopf/Washington