By Alex Tresniowski
October 20, 2003 12:00 PM

Sure, Jay Leno joked about it. “A lot of people are on that Rush Limbaugh diet, have you tried it?” he asked his audience Oct. 6. “It’s Vicodin for breakfast, OxyContin for lunch and the shakes for dinner.” But for the archconservative king of talk radio and his legion of devoted “ditto heads,” the straits in which Limbaugh now finds himself are no laughing matter. The day after losing his new gig as an ESPN football analyst Oct. 1 for making racially insensitive remarks, Limbaugh, 52, was front and center in a far more serious scandal—allegations that he is addicted to painkillers and part of a Florida drug-trafficking probe.

The claims came from Wilma Cline, 41, who told law enforcement officers in Palm Beach County that while working as a maid at Limbaugh’s $30 million estate there she supplied him with thousands of pills—specifically the highly addictive painkillers hydrocodone, Lorcet and OxyContin (see box). By Cline’s account, which she sold to the National Enquirer, Limbaugh took as many as 30 OxyContin pills a day, detoxed twice and bullied her into supplying more and more drugs from 1998 to 2002. He also arranged meetings at a West Palm Beach Denny’s, she said, to pick up a cigar box stuffed with pills. Limbaugh did not deny the allegations but declined to comment for this story. “I really don’t know the full scope of what I’m dealing with,” he told the estimated 20 million listeners of his top-rated afternoon radio show Oct. 3. “I’m not even going to tell you how you ought to look at that stuff that’s in the press.”

Cline also suggested there is a link between Limbaugh and pharmacist Louis Beshara, who along with his wife, Gloria, is being investigated for illegally selling prescription narcotics out of his Palm Beach County pharmacy. “The Clines say there is a connection between the Besharas” and Limbaugh, a Palm Beach law enforcement officer told PEOPLE. But the officer says that no link has been established and that Limbaugh is not a target of the probe. About 10 months ago Cline approached investigators with taped conversations she said proved her story: that she and her husband, David, first gave Limbaugh painkillers legally prescribed to David in 1998, then turned to other sources as Limbaugh demanded larger quantities of pills. But investigators were focused on tracking down drug sellers, not users. “Everybody went, ‘Okay, you’ve got a big name, but what’s his role?’ ” the officer says of the interview. “Okay, his role is as the user, but where would he get the stuff from? I think they thought we’d get all jazzed up and go after the guy.”

That still leaves open the question of whether Limbaugh is addicted to dangerous painkillers—and when he might have gotten hooked. Two years ago Limbaugh underwent surgery to install a cochlear implant to help with hearing problems his doctor said were caused by a rare condition called autoimmune inner ear disease (he now has partial hearing). But heavy abuse of painkillers such as Lorcet has caused deafness in scores of people, says Dr. Gail Ishiyama, a hearing-loss expert. “Any time somebody has an unknown cause of profound hearing loss, we always ask very intently about any pain medications,” she says. Limbaugh’s physician Dr. Antonio De la Cruz issued a statement standing by his diagnosis.

The scandal surrounding Limbaugh, who lives quietly in a sprawling, waterfront mansion with third wife Marta, 44, surprised some of those close to him. “He did my TV show three weeks before this broke, and he was up and articulate and a lot of fun,” says syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, a good friend. “I think he will survive this and then some.”

Whatever the case, nothing seems to have quieted Limbaugh’s trademark motormouth, and he’s standing by his comments about Philadelphia Eagles star Donovan McNabb. “The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” he said during a Sept. 28 broadcast, and so McNabb “got a lot of credit…that he didn’t deserve.” A backlash led to Limbaugh’s resignation Oct. 1. His remarks about McNabb are “so far from the truth,” said Eagles defensive end N.D. Kalu. “But you can’t punish people for being stupid.”

Illegally scoring painkillers is another matter. While there is no indication Limbaugh will face any charges, possessing large quantities of narcotics such as OxyContin without a prescription is a first-degree felony in Florida; the likely prison sentence, says prominent Miami attorney Richard Sharpstein, would be around five years. Should Cline’s allegations prove true, Limbaugh may, at the very least, have to do something that’s rare for the Maha Rushie—eat his words. “Too many whites are getting away with drug use,” he said in a 1995 interview. “The answer is to…find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river.”


Siobhan Morrissey and Linda Marx in Florida and Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C.