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Close enough for government work

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Shortly after she became the 16th woman to say Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped, fondled or otherwise sexually harried her, Rhonda Miller was gang raped by politics.

Lawyer Gloria Allred tells the story this way. She got a call from Miller, a 53-year-old stunt double who worked on two of Schwarzenegger's films. Miller told Allred that Schwarzenegger had pulled up her shirt and snapped a photo of her breasts and had groped her during the filming of two of his movies.

Last Monday, Allred parked Miller before a bank of television cameras. Miller read a statement, refused all questions and fled the room.

Then came the payback.

Schwarzenegger's campaign, frantic to deflect the latest sexual harassment allegation on the eve of last week's recall election, issued a memorandum to select California media outlets. Signed by Schwarzenegger spokesman Sean Walsh, the memo read:

"It has come to our attention from the media that you can access court documents from the following web site: www.lasuperiorcourt.org/Criminal. You will have to pay a $4.75 online charge to access/search the site. Once you have accessed, the site, type 'Rhonda' in the 'first name' field, and 'Miller' in 'last name' field."

In went Miller's name and out came the record: prostitution, narcotics, forgery. John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, two LA radio talkers whose commitment to fair play has extended to hosting a Schwarzenegger rally, read from the Miller "record."

Matt Drudge, the nation's slanderer general, posted a headline: "ARNOLD ACCUSER'S STORY FALLS APART . . . " It linked to a discussion thread on the FreeRepublic.com Web site. There, correspondents described Miller as "the ape woman" and "crack ho." Anonymous correspondents thrilled to the ethical postulate that by smearing his accuser, they were somehow acquitting Arnold.

Through it all, there was a plaintive refrain from a single person on the FreeRepublic site: "Are we sure this is the same Rhonda Miller?"

It was not.

The Rhonda Miller who accused Schwarzenegger was born in 1950. I entered her birthday into the same LA court computers and found her clean, at least in the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles.

There are a few dozen Rhonda Millers in California and about 40 Rhonda Horns. Horn was her married name and there is, indeed, a Rhonda Horn with a 1989 forgery record in LA. Again, the birthday does not match. By way of comparison, I put the name "Sean Walsh" through the same computer. It spit out 15 counts ranging from drunken driving to hit-and-run to marijuana possession. There is no reason to believe this is Schwarzenegger's Sean Walsh. Such allegations require moral certainty, especially from those who would govern.

Walsh, a veteran of the Reagan and first Bush administrations, said the Schwarzenegger campaign felt blindsided by the allegations. He complained that Allred, a partisan Democrat, kept Miller from reporters. Without questioning, he said, reporters could not sort out Miller's credibility.

His response was a memo worded with the precision of a booby trap.

"We did not make any allegations," Walsh told me. "I wrote that memo myself. I wrote it very, very carefully."

Walsh's careful memo elicited just the sort of reckless conclusions needed to fighten off any other would-be accusers.

Rhonda Miller might or might not have a record, but nobody did much to verify it one way or the other before publicly calling her a prostitute and thief. They simply threw the name out there and ran.

"We simply said that this name was available on the web site and encouraged reporters to do their research and do their due diligence," Walsh said.

Drudge deleted his link to the FreeRepublic threads by Tuesday morning. But in Los Angeles on election night, Kobylt and Chiampou were in full throat. Allred phoned the show to tell John and Ken they had slandered her client.

"Yeah, well, you jump in the mudbath, things like that are gonna happen," one of them replied. Allred suggested an apology was due. But John and Ken weren't ready to concede that the Rhonda Miller on the court computers was not her client.

"We are checking that out," he said. Ordinarily, that is what someone does before calling a woman a check-forging hooker, but John and Ken pride themselves in their sense of populist rage and every uprising needs an innocent victim to spice the bonfire.

"This is hideous," Allred told me as her e-mail account filled with notes from people around the country demanding to know how she could put forward a felon as an accuser.

Hideous indeed. When Allred went on MSNBCs "Scarborough Country" talk show, conservative talk show host Kim Serafin announced she had learned of Miller's record en route to the studio.

"She has 17 convictions, 16 prostitution convictions, six drug charges convictions. She's been convicted of theft, of felony."

The allegations turned up on Fox News channel. Rush Limbaugh gave passing mention to John and Ken's discovery of the accuser's curious past. All this while John and Ken were "checking out" the allegations they had already broadcast.

On Tuesday night, Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Barring a legal challenge, he will be sworn in by Nov. 25. Possibly, by then Rhonda Miller will have her apology from John and Ken or maybe even one from Gov. Schwarzenegger. When she gets her reputation back we can only guess.

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