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The Los Angeles Times

Was Encounter With Cheney a Touch, a Slap or a Shove?

DeeDee Correll

DENVER - No one can agree on what exactly happened the day a Colorado man spotted Dick Cheney strolling the streets of a ski resort town and decided to give the vice president a piece of his mind.0204 04

Steve Howards, 55, says he walked up to Cheney and delivered his message -- "Your policies in Iraq are disgusting" -- then lightly touched the vice president's shoulder.

The White House photographer says he saw Howards slap Cheney on the back.

Cheney's personal aide remembers Howards placing his hand on Cheney's arm and shaking his hand.

As for the Secret Service agents who arrested Howards on suspicion of assault: two say he lightly clapped Cheney on the shoulder; one demonstrated it as a shove; a fourth said Howards reached over several small children and struck Cheney.

Since the agents -- now accusing one another of changing their stories and lying about what happened -- can't agree, Cheney should give his own version, Howards said.

He has filed a federal lawsuit against the agents, claiming they violated his right to free speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

"He's the so-called victim of the assault. Clearly the vice president should have very relevant testimony to give," said Howards' attorney, David Lane, who this month asked a federal judge to order U.S. marshals to serve a subpoena to the White House.

Getting the vice president in a witness box would be a historic achievement.

It's exceedingly rare for high-level officials to testify or give depositions, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a Washington group that advocates for transparency in government.

Fitton said he could not recall any instance in which Cheney had given a deposition while in office.

He said that to compel such a high-ranking executive branch official to testify, one must show that that official has information that couldn't be obtained in another way -- the same argument Cheney's attorney made in U.S. District Court last week.

Biz Van Gelder, a Washington lawyer who specializes in white-collar criminal defense, disagrees.

"I know of no law that says the vice president of the United States is immune from service process because he's the vice president," she said.

One question the courts will consider is how much of an intrusion it is on the schedule of the vice president to be called to testify, said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency.

Perhaps the best-known example of a president or vice president giving a deposition in recent times is former President Clinton's 1998 testimony in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones, an event whose anniversary is still noted in "Today in History" newspaper columns.

Another example is the 1990 testimony of former President Reagan as a defense witness in the trial of former national security advisor John M. Poindexter.

And last year, speculation swirled that Cheney would testify at the criminal trial of his former aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but that didn't happen.

Experts noted that situations such as the Howards-Cheney exchange are rare.

"These sorts of things don't happen that often because they have a pretty sheltered existence," Goldstein said.

On June 16, 2006, Howards, an environmental consultant, was with his family in Beaver Creek, a resort town about 100 miles west of Denver, when he spotted Cheney walking down the street.

That morning, Howards said he had read a newspaper article that listed the number of troops killed in Iraq.

"I was outraged," he said. "The fact he happened to cross my way, I felt, was an opportunity I couldn't ignore."

So Howards said he spoke his piece, then patted the right shoulder of Cheney's silk suit and walked away. A Secret Service agent caught up with him a few minutes later and began to question him.

The agent, Virgil "Gus" Reichle Jr., did not see what happened. But he said other agents told him an assault had occurred -- that Howards slapped Cheney "with such force that his shoulder dipped," according to Reichle's deposition.

Reichle arrested Howards, but assault charges were never filed. Instead, Howards was issued a summons for misdemeanor harassment, but the district attorney later dismissed the charge, saying it was clear Howards hadn't attacked Cheney.

What transpired next is anything but clear.

In his Nov. 27 deposition, Reichle claimed the other agents later changed their stories to say there was no assault -- perhaps because they didn't want to inconvenience Cheney with any legal hassles.

"Certainly they don't want him to be bothered with a deposition," he said. "Perhaps Vice President Cheney just was willing to let it go, you know. He's a tough guy, played high school football."

Another agent, Daniel McLaughlin, denied that he had ever considered the incident to be an assault. After Howards' arrest, he said, he and another agent, Adam Daniels, wrote statements describing what they had seen -- physical contact but no assault.

McLaughlin said Reichle called him several hours after the arrest and asked him to alter his written statement.

"[Reichle] said, 'I need you to change your statement; your story and mine are not the same.' I said, 'My statement is what I recollect from what I participated in. We're not having this conversation.' Then I hung up on him," McLaughlin testified.

The next morning, McLaughlin said Reichle confronted him and said, " 'The vice president's detail is involved in a cover-up.' I thought that he had taken a giant leap away from his good senses."

A Secret Service spokesman declined to comment on the case because of the litigation.

The agents' rancorous difference of opinion makes Cheney a crucial witness in the case, the attorney for Howards argued.

He said it was customary for lawyers to accept subpoenas on behalf of their clients, but Cheney's attorney, James Gilligan, had refused to do so.

Gilligan noted that the agents and other government employees had complied with depositions. Asking the vice president, he said, "is a different kettle of fish."

To compel the testimony of a high-level official, the plaintiff must show the testimony can't be gleaned from other sources, Gilligan said.

Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer ordered Gilligan to present his legal arguments by the end of February outlining why Cheney should not be subpoenaed. Another hearing is scheduled for March 6.

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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