Spotlight On The Senator: What Did Teddy Know?

His nephew is headed for trial on a rape charge, but last week it was Sen. Edward Kennedy who found himself shrouded in fallout from the Palm Beach scandal. The question: what did Teddy know and when did he know it? Documents released by the police don't entirely square with public statements he made after the alleged assault of a 29-year-old woman at the family's estate on the morning of March 30. The files also raise the possibility that the Massachusetts Democrat avoided officers who wanted to quiz him about the incident.

William Kennedy Smith, the son of Kennedy's sister Jean, stands accused of second-degree sexual battery (Florida's legal term for rape) and misdemeanor battery. And police now say "several" people at the house that weekend-including family friend and sometime security man William Barry-are under investigation for possible obstruction of justice in misleading investigators immediately after the alleged attack. On Capitol Hill last week, Kennedy vehemently denied he had ducked the cops. "As soon as I became aware that the police wished to speak with me, I made arrangements to talk with them, " he said.

More than 1,000 pages of sworn statements and investigative files made public last week poke holes in Kennedy's story. In a May 1 deposition, he told authorities Barry "may have mentioned" that police wanted to talk to him about an urn stolen from the estate. But he added that he didn't grasp "the full dimensions" of the allegations against his nephew until after he returned to Washington on April 1. However, Patrick Kennedy told investigators that his father was present on the evening of March 31 when Barry warned them that Smith's guest had told police she was the victim of a sexual assault. "So your father was there to hear of the allegation of sexual battery from the lips of Bill Barry?" a prosecutor asked. "Yes," the 23-year-old Rhode Island state legislator said. Ted Kennedy maintained last week that there was "no discrepancy" between his statement and his son's, only "an honest semantic misunderstanding" about the meaning of the phrase "sexual battery."

But Kennedy understood enough about the charge, according to the deposition, to phone Marvin Rosen, a political supporter and Miami attorney. Rosen's law partner, Mark Schnapp, would become Smith's defense counsel. When Smith, who had flown home to Washington, called later that evening to talk about the night in question, Kennedy bucked him to Rosen. "He said, 'Do you want the whole story?'I said, 'You better tell the whole story to someone, to Marvin Rosen'," Kennedy said.

Statements made public last week also raised new questions about the conduct of Barry, who met with police when they first came to the estate March 31. As Easter lunch was being served, Barry told detectives that Kennedy was out and that Smith might have left town "but that it was possible he may still be around." Several house guests have told police that Smith and Kennedy were both present. Jean Saba, an estate employee, told police that after the detectives left, she saw Barry and Kennedy talking in the kitchen. When investigators called later, a housekeeper told them Barry had taken Smith and Kennedy to the airport. Barry denies deceiving the police.

Palm Beach investigators are vigorously pursuing the obstruction-of-justice charge. Telephone and airline computer records have been trolled for any signs of a cover-up or last-minute changes in Kennedy's or Smith's travel plans. Legal experts say the obstruction case against Kennedy and Smith-let alone Barry-is flimsy at best; avoiding police is not an obstruction of justice. Critics say the probe is motivated by politics: the chief prosecutor, state attorney David Bludworth, is up for re-election next year. "I am outraged that anybody thinks there's an obstruction of justice in this case," says Neal Sonnett, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "The conduct of the state attorney's office and chief of police is mind-boggling."

The police documents provide other striking snapshots of the infamous weekend. According to his deposition, the elder Kennedy finished a late dinner and, around midnight, woke up his sleeping son and nephew to ask them if they wanted to go out for "a couple of beers. " They chose the trendy Au Bar, where Smith met the alleged victim. Back at the estate several hours later, Patrick Kennedy told investigators that Smith came to the bedroom they shared to express concern about his date. "I just can't believe it," Kennedy heard Smith say. "She is saying that she called the police." The next day Kennedy asked, "How was she? Did you wear protection?" Smith answered, "No, but thank God I pulled out."

Senator Kennedy told police he retired soon after returning from the bar-stirring only once to see if Smith had returned home. Neither he nor the seven other house guests interviewed by the police said they heard anything at the time the alleged attack took place. A lone neighbor, a woman who lives across the street, said she heard a "very, very terrible argument" between a man and a woman that night. month And only Patrick Barry, William's son, reported seeing anything. He told police that he looked out a window to see "two shapes" near the pool, lying either next to or on top of each other.

Kennedy has taken a public-relations pounding for the Palm Beach scandal. But there is no evidence that it has damaged him politically. A Boston Globe poll conducted last month found that while nearly all Massachusetts voters had heard about his Florida misadventure, few had changed their attitude toward the senator. His base in the Senate, bolstered by a major committee chairmanship and strong ties to labor and civil-rights groups, is also secure. But the vaunted Kennedy damage-control machine is clearly past its prime. A Mother's Day photo given to The Boston Globe showed him sharing a laugh with son Edward Jr. as he wheeled rarely seen family matriarch Rose Kennedy around the Hyannis Port compound. The picture drew a scathing front-page attack from the Kennedy-bashing Boston Herald, which blasted the Globe for lapping up a cynical photo op. "Whatever the offense, the Kennedys have always had their friends in the media," editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen wrote. But it will take more than a few friendlies in the press to protect Kennedy from his worst enemy-himself.

Photos: Inside the Kennedy Estate: Palm Beach police photos depict the scene of William Kennedy Smith's alleged rape of a 29-year-old woman. Smith grabbed her on the stairs from the beach (below left), the woman says, then tackled her near the pool (center) after she broke free. There, she says, Smith raped her. Hiding in the pantry (below right) later, the woman phoned friends to take her home. One took an urn (top) to prove they had been in the Kennedy house.