A Man Of Mystery

Robert Novak, as usual, had a scoop to unload--only this time, it was from the witness stand. Testifying last week in the trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the conservative columnist gruffly described how he first learned from two top Bush administration officials that Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, was a CIA officer. But then Novak injected a new name into the drama--one that virtually nobody in the courtroom knew.

Asked by one of Libby's lawyers if he had talked about Plame with anybody else before outing her in his column, Novak said he'd discussed her with a lobbyist named Richard Hohlt. Who, the lawyer pressed, is Hohlt? "He's a very good source of mine" whom I talk to "every day," Novak replied. Indeed, Hohlt is such a good source that after Novak finished his column naming Plame, he testified, he did something most journalists rarely do: he gave the lobbyist an advance copy of his column. What Novak didn't tell the jury is what the lobbyist then did with it: Hohlt confirmed to NEWSWEEK that he faxed the forthcoming column to their mutual friend Karl Rove (one of Novak's sources for the Plame leak), thereby giving the White House a heads up on the bombshell to come.

The trial of Libby-- who is charged with lying about his own alleged role in the disclosure of Plame's identity--has revealed much about how government officials and journalists swap secrets. But Hohlt's outing was especially revealing. Unlike many of the high-profile Washington players who have populated the Plame affair, Hohlt is a Beltway power broker of a different sort. He works quietly, rarely makes the papers and likes it that way. Hohlt, 58, came to Washington more than 30 years ago as an aide to Sen. Richard Lugar. He now represents A-list clients like Bristol Myers, Chevron, JPMorgan Chase and the Nuclear Energy Association. At the same time, he raises buckets of cash for the Republican Party: he was designated a "Super Ranger," a fund-raiser who raked in more than $500,000 for President Bush's re-election.

But Hohlt's more significant role may be his leadership of a secretive social group of GOP heavy hitters and, occasionally, White House officials, who convene to smoke cigars and mull over politics. The group's name: the Off The Record Club. Hohlt is the club's "keeper of the flame," says one participant who, like others contacted for this story, didn't want to be named because it violates the group's rules. Each month or so for more than 15 years, Hohlt has booked a room at a posh Washington hotel or restaurant and invited the guests for dinner. Among the regulars, according to three participants: fellow lobbyists Ken Duberstein, Charlie Black and Vin Weber. Rove and White House chief of staff Josh Bolten "have both attended these meetings on occasion," says a White House spokesperson. (Duberstein and Weber did not respond to requests for comment. Black wouldn't talk about the club because "one of the purposes of it is to be off the record," he says.) "It's really just a bunch of old-timers who like to shoot the breeze," Hohlt tells NEWSWEEK. "We can complain about our clients, complain about what's going on on the Hill." (Hohlt's most recent gripe: a new D.C. smoking ban that has snuffed out the after-dinner stogies.) The club, participants say, helps the White House with damage control--they prodded GOP pols to back the president's post-Katrina cleanup--and thinks up ways to get the party's message across to the press.

That's where Hohlt has proved most valuable. An accomplished information trader, Hohlt serves as a background source for a select group of Washington journalists--Novak above all. "He's known as the person you go to to try to get stuff in Novak's column," says one semiregular OTR participant. (Novak says it is "ridiculous" to suggest he writes what Hohlt wants.)

After Novak first told Hohlt that he was working on a hot story about ex-ambassador Joe Wilson, Hohlt says he e-mailed Rove to expect a phone call from Novak. Then Hohlt began pressing Novak to learn the juicy details. On July 11, 2003, three days before the column was published, Novak gave him a preview copy. (Unknown to Hohlt, Rove had already confirmed to Novak that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.) That same day, Hohlt e-mailed details about the column to Rove, and later faxed him the entire unpublished article. (Rove's lawyer confirms this account.) "I was just trying to be helpful," Hohlt says. His role as a go-between later earned him a visit from the FBI, but it stayed secret until now. And that was just fine with Hohlt, who says that his greatest accomplishment as a lobbyist has been "staying out of the press." Thanks to last week's testimony, his cover--like Valerie Plame's--is now blown.