Clinton faces new woes over an embarrassing lawsuit
RAE CORELLI,WILLIAM LOWTHERJune91997
Sex, lies and the President
Clinton faces new woes over an embarrassing lawsuit
Ever since Bill Clinton’s first campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1992, sleaze and scandal have tracked him like vengeful dogs snapping at a runner’s heels. At various times, he has been accused of dope smoking, questionable financial dealings, draft-dodging and repeated womanizing. Until last week, largely because of his undiminished popularity and endless White House damage control, Clinton seemed to have escaped serious harm from the persistent and partisan attacks on his personal morality. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a bomb. In an unprecedented rebuke to a president, the nine justices unanimously ruled that a sexual harassment suit against Clinton by a former Arkansas state employee does not have to be delayed until after he leaves office in 2001. The President’s political foes gloated. “No one in America is above the law, period,” said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, himself the recent target of an ethics probe.
For Clinton, the suit by Paula Jones for $1 million in damages is the latest in a string of embarrassments that began early in the 1992 campaign. But the pursuit of vindication by the 30-year-old Jones, now living in California with her husband and two children, may be the most formidable challenge yet to Clinton’s composure, the loyalty of his Democratic allies and his chances of being taken seriously at home and abroad. For now, the Supreme Court decision tosses the Jones case back to Judge Susan Webber Wright in the U.S. district court in Arkansas, where Clinton will have 20 days to answer the complaint against him. At that point, the process takes over and the warring parties will find themselves headed towards a distant trial date. But neither side would benefit from two or more years of public acrimony and sordid headlines. All Jones wants is her money and some form of apology from Clinton. Legal experts believe a settlement cannot be far off—although whatever form it takes is likely to be painful for the President and his family.
The incident at the heart of the case occurred on May 8, 1991, during a trade show at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock, Ark., sponsored by the governor’s office. Jones, then 24, was among those representing the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, and she later said that Clinton kept looking at her as he toured the exhibits. In a subsequent interview with Washington Post reporter Michael Isikoff, Jones said that at about 2:30 in the afternoon, she was approached by state trooper Danny Ferguson, who asked if she would accompany him to the governor’s suite. When she asked what Clinton wanted, the trooper replied: “It’s OK, we do this all the time for the governor.” Jones said she hoped the governor would give her a job, so she went.
Once in the suite, she found herself alone with Clinton who, she said, told her how much he liked her hair and her “curves.” According to her account, he then fondled her legs and em^ braced her. “I will never forget the look on his face,” she told | Isikoff. “His face was just red, beet red.” ‘What are you doing?” | she demanded, pushing Clinton away from her. At that point, t she said, Clinton sat on a sofa, pulled down his trousers, | showed his erect penis and said: “Kss it.” Jones claims she was legal advice on how best to clear her name and was introduced to some high-powered conservative Republican lawyers. She is currently represented by Washington attorneys Joseph Cammarata and Gilbert Davis, a Republican running for state attorney general of Virginia. Late in the week, Davis accused the White House of trying to smear him after a Democratic consultant released a videotape showing him talking suggestively to a woman in a hotel room. Davis said the 1994 tape was old news.
horrified and said: “Look, I’m not that kind of girl.” According to her, Clinton said: ‘Well, I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do.” Although she was upset, she says she noticed a “distinguishing characteristic” about Clinton’s genitals before he pulled up his trousers and told her not to mention the episode to anyone. Jones says she fled from the room and immediately informed her family and close friends. But she decided not to make a formal complaint because she feared that she would lose her job.
A year after Clinton was elected president, The American Spectator, a right-wing magazine strongly opposed to Clinton, published a long series of interviews with his former state police bodyguards. Several said that as governor, Clinton had had numerous extramarital affairs and they had frequently been used to procure women for him. They named a number of women, including one called “Paula.” Reporters tracked down Paula Jones and there soon was local speculation that she had been Clinton’s mistress. Jones, in turn, sought
From the beginning, Jones’s sally onto the tabloid stage has not been pleasant. Newspapers and TV information shows of all sorts have portrayed her as a poorly educated, slovenly redneck with a dubious reputation who had fallen under the control of fringe conservatives. The White House mounted an effective publicity campaign to discredit her. Flamboyant Clinton adviser James Car ville
Paula Jones says she just wants to clear her name
called her “trailer trash.” Clinton himself has denied her charges and says he doesn’t recall meeting her.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s legal team, led by Robert Bennett, had opted for tactics designed to stall Jones’s case. In their appeal to the Supreme Court, they argued in vain that presidents are just too busy to deal with civil suits and should be immune from hostile litigation until they leave office. Bennett is expected to ask for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that even if the allegations were true, Clinton did not violate Jones’s civil rights, which is the basis of her claim. This will cause another month’s delay, but Jegal experts do not expect Wright to agree. While in the past she has indicated a belief that the President may indeed be too busy to deal with the case until he leaves office, she has also said it should be possible to take depositions at once, before memories fade any further.
The betting in the legal community is that depositions will be taken before the end of the summer, but that, if Clinton continues to press for delay, the case may not be heard until the end of his term. Stalling may be costly, however. For one thing, the case will hang over the President like a cloud and may diminish his effectiveness not only in dealing with Congress but with world leaders. Moreover, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said to be furious about the whole affair, is worried that if the case is not cleared up soon, 18-year-old daughter Chelsea will become the butt of jokes when she starts attending Stanford University in September.
The depositions—the next step—are likely to be leaked by one side or the other. Jones’s lawyers have indicated they will seek to prove a pattern of conduct on the part of Clinton by taking statements from all the bodyguards and the other women with whom the President is said to have been involved. Under questioning, Clinton is sure to be asked by Jones’s lawyers about the “distinguishing characteristic” in his genital area and they will likely demand that the area be photographed for the court records. Neither Jones nor her lawyers have offered descriptions.
If the two sides cannot reach a settlement and the case goes to trial, says Republican pollster Barbara Barlow, “every time he goes up to Capitol Hill, every time he meets another world leader, he will be looking for the smirk behind the smile.” But Clinton would not be the only loser if the case goes to court. Phillip Kay, a Washington attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases, says that Jones “is going to get dragged through a briar patch, pulled through the mud and shoved under a boat and raked over a bed of coral.” Yet settlement talks may be some way off, while now is the time for posturing. “The President and I feel that some very nasty and malicious and false allegations have been made against him,” says Bennett, “and we look forward to our day in court.”
Cammarata said, however, the President was prepared two years ago to state that “while I don’t recall Paula Jones, I don’t deny her claim that she was in my room at the Excelsior Hotel.” That deal fell through because the two sides could not agree on the precise wording. Now, Davis, Jones’s lead lawyer, has signalled that his client is open to further negotiations. ‘We would be looking for some kind of admission and something that could be interpreted as an apology,” he says. Several legal authorities agree that a settlement is likely. “Clinton wants a historic legacy,” says Republican campaign consultant Jay Smith, “and he doesn’t want it to be Paula Jones.”
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