By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
This time, Oberwetter asked Hunt Oil's security chief, Wilbur Rainey, to accompany him when he went to the reception area. When Oberwetter told the visitor (whom he later referred to as "Cowboy Bob") that he would talk to him right there in the lounge, Allen said he would rather go someplace else.
"'My God,' I thought," says Oberwetter. "'This can't be happening again.'" Oberwetter took Rainey and Allen to a side office. The FBI agent was wired, and what follows is based on that transcript.
Cowboy Bob told Oberwetter that he was "an associate of Mr. Scott Barnes," and he then opened his briefcase and produced a tape that he said was a recording of a Perot conversation from a tap on his phone lines.
"I was hired to do this," said the undercover agent, "and it was my understanding from Mr. Barnes that you wanted him to do this." Oberwetter denied it, and when told that Joe Deoudes, a worker on the Republican opposition research committee, had wanted the tapes, Oberwetter said, "They would never ask somebody to do what you have suggested [emphasis in original transcript]."
Cowboy Bob seemed confused, expecting that Oberwetter would be happy to receive the tapes. "Do you want to receive this tape or anything like this?" he asked, somewhat quizzically.
"Of course not," Oberwetter told him firmly. Then Oberwetter became more aggressive, telling the undercover agent, "I'm serving as chairman of the president's campaign in Texas, and I smell an effort to embarrass the president and to ruin me, and that means lawsuits....There is mischief afoot."
The FBI was stunned that Oberwetter did not want the tapes. The bureau had completely accepted Barnes' tale that the Republicans, and especially Oberwetter, were anxiously awaiting wiretapped conversations of Perot. Now they realized Barnes' story was false. "By the end of that day," says an FBI official in the Dallas office, "there was already finger-pointing going on."
Belatedly, the following day the FBI decided to try and get to the bottom of the story. By this time, Buck Revell thought that, in addition to Barnes, Taylor "was culpable. I believe that he knew the story was false when he came to us."
The FBI sent agents, identifying themselves as such, to interview Oberwetter, Barnes, and Taylor. Barnes stuck to his same story--that the Republicans had recruited him to wiretap Perot's phones and that he was not sure why Oberwetter had refused the tapes at the last minute. During his interview, Barnes received a frantic phone call from David Taylor, who was nervous because two FBI agents were at his Washington office. When he hung up the phone, Barnes turned around to the two agents and asked, "Any guarantee of immunity?" They said no.
To Ross Perot, the collapse of the FBI investigation was a great disappointment. He had dropped out of the race, ready to pin it on Republican dirty tricks, and was confident that Barnes and Taylor had kicked off an inquiry that would lead to arrests, indictments, and public humiliation for those who had conspired against him.
The FBI came to the conclusion that it had been had by Barnes, but Perot remained convinced that the Republican dirty tricksters had merely escaped detection. In a few months, he would try to personally expose them on 60 Minutes, in the court of public opinion.
But the interview did not turn out as Perot hoped. It was confrontational. 60 Minutes had been unable to find any corroboration for a Republican plot. On camera, Buck Revell acknowledged that the bureau's investigation had uncovered no evidence of dirty tricks. When correspondent Leslie Stahl confronted Perot with that statement, he claimed it was the first time he had ever heard that conclusion, and said, "We've got a squirrely situation in the FBI if that happened. Sounds like it's politics to me. [The FBI] can't talk to me, but they talk to 60 Minutes. Don't you find that interesting?"
The public reaction to the show was bad. Polls showed that many thought it revealed a tendency for Perot to draw conclusions before he had all the evidence, and it revived unfavorable images of his bent for conspiracy theories.
The press had a new story and relentlessly pursued it, not allowing Perot to get back to his core issue, the deficit. The day following the 60 Minutes broadcast, Orson Swindle, Clay Mulford, Sharon Holman, and Ross Perot Jr. tried to handle a flurry of questions about the incident at a packed press conference. Suddenly Perot, who had been listening to the news conference on his car radio while driving to work, arrived, angry at the sharp questions being asked of his son.
"Black Sunday was followed by blacker Monday," recalls Swindle. "I was at the podium answering questions. Some reporter said, 'Well, what does Mr. Perot think of that?' And I said, 'I don't know, I will ask him.' Somebody else said, 'Why don't you ask him, he's over there.' I had the damnedest look on my face. I thought, 'Oh my God,' and he just walked into the room and right up to the microphone. It was like he walked into a trap. The press nipped at him and he responded in kind, and he didn't look presidential. It was catastrophic."