On October 10, Roy Black received an assurance. It was early in the afternoon, and the white-collar criminal defense attorney and an aide had driven the 70 miles north from Miami to meet with Barry Krischer, the state attorney for West Palm Beach, and his prosecutorial team. After exchanging pleasantries, the two teams took their seats opposite the battered, rectangular conference table on the first-floor of Krischer's office near the marina. They went through some miscellany, and then Black cut to the chase: What was Krischer's intention with regard to his client, Rush Limbaugh?
Krischer placed his arms on the table and folded his hands. His office had been aware of Rush's drug use for many months, he told Black. If it was their intention to prosecute, he said, they would have done so already. Their office policy, Krischer continued, was not to prosecute the drug addict, but to go after the pusher who sold them, the doctor who prescribed them, the dealer who bought them. "He told me Rush was not a target," Black recalled. The two attorneys had known each other for almost 30 years, and Black took him at his word.
Krischer's office may have known about Rush's drug problem ten months earlier, but Rush's listeners would find out in only a few minutes. Just before he signed off at 3 p.m., the conservative radio talk show host would tell his 20 million listeners across more than 650 radio stations that he was addicted to pain medication. "You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life," Rush said, "so I need to tell you that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication." After coming clean, Rush took a month-long hiatus from the program at an Arizona clinic.
SPURRED BY A REPORT in a supermarket tabloid, the gossip mill had been churning for a week with salacious stories about Rush's problems. "Rush Limbaugh Caught in Drug Ring!" screamed the October 2 cover of the National Enquirer. The "world exclusive" promised the "shocking story" of "Rush's secret narcotics addiction," as told to the tabloid by his former housemaid, Wilma Cline.
The story, as Cline related, began in 1998, soon after she was hired to mind Rush's $24 million mansion in Palm Beach. Upon learning that Cline's husband, David, was taking the potent painkiller hydrocodone, Rush asked if she "could spare a couple of them." A couple turned into a monthly fix of 30, and when the prescription for her husband ran out, Cline said Rush demanded still more.
"His tone was nasty and bullying," she told the tabloid in baited breaths that hardly seem plausible. "He said, 'I don't care how or what you do, but you'd better -- better! -- get me some more.'" Cline and her husband found a new source, and though Rush twice checked himself into rehab programs over the next few years, his pill-popping continued, expanding to include not only hydrocodone but Lorcet and OxyContin. "He told me that if it ever got out, he would be ruined," Cline recalled.
At first Cline would stash the medication under his mattress, she said, but after she quit as his housekeeper in July 2001, the handoffs took to seedier places and manners, including desperate emails and phone messages from Rush for the "small blue babies" and others, and a furtive exchange in a Denny's parking lot. Finally, Cline claimed, after supplying Rush with tens of thousands of pills over four years -- and accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in return -- she and her husband grew fearful of their role in the matter and came clean to the local authorities. "There were times when I was worried," Cline told the Enquirer with faux tenderness. "All these pills are enough to kill an elephant -- never mind a man." (Rush is a Republican. Elephant, Republican -- get it?)
SOME TEN MONTHS BEFORE the public knew about Rush, Krischer's office had all of this. For her story, Cline and her husband were granted immunity. The dealers whom the Clines got the drugs from were arrested and charged, but the prosecutors didn't appear to be making a case against Rush. There was, of course, the office's general policy of taking a more lenient eye towards prescription drug addicts, viewing them less as criminals than as victims. And there were understandable explanations for why Rush was addicted to pain medication: The talk-show host has suffered from chronic medical problems, including spinal pain and the temporary loss of his hearing that resulted in a cochlear implant. His dealings with the Clines stemmed from addictions to legitimate prescriptions from doctors.
Nor was Krischer's office alone in showing leniency toward prescription drug addicts. Hollywood's Variety and other newspapers are chock-full of stories about celebrities such as Rush hooked on Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin -- actor Matthew Perry, bad boys Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr., football star Brett Favre -- have all had their troubles. Some of these fixes were obtained through real and bogus prescriptions; others from drug dealers. Invariably, a few voluntary weeks at Happy Hills were enough to elicit strong praise for their courage. And then there's Noelle Bush in Florida. It took a number of repeat offenses before the governor's daughter was dealt with punitively by the bench.
And even if Krischer had wanted to land a big fish like Rush, there didn't seem to be much of a case. He hadn't been caught with the drugs on him, and as star witnesses against Rush, the Clines were less than stellar. For starters, despite Cline's expressions of sympathy for Rush to the Enquirer, the pair hadn't shown much remorse supplying him until they felt their own necks were on the line. And Rush's version of events didn't put them in a sympathetic light at all. As told by Black, the arrangement went awry when the Clines tried to blackmail Rush, sandbagging him at his office and demanding $4 million to keep their mouths shut. That they sold their story to the tabloid for $250,000 tainted their credibility even more. And Rush's defenders are quick to say that the tabloid initially refused their story -- complete with emails, answering machine recordings, and likely illegal audio tapes of exchanges with Rush -- unless they ginned up an official investigation.
Then, too, there was Cline's husband, David. In 1982, David Cline was arrested in Florida for cocaine trafficking. He skipped bond and hid for seven years before finally surrendering and serving five years in prison. In 2000, he was arrested again, this time for identity theft, fake documents, marijuana possession, and resisting arrest -- convictions that earned him 18 months' probation, the terms of which he no doubt violated in supplying Rush's habit...
This piece can be read in full in the May 2004 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
Sam Dealey writes for The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C.
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