WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was put on the defensive about his character once again yesterday when a former Arkansas state employee filed a lawsuit alleging that he made an aggressive and unwanted sexual advance toward her three years ago.
In a graphic sexual-harassment complaint filed in federal court in Little Rock, Paula Corbin Jones alleges that Mr. Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, had a state trooper bring her to a hotel room, where Mr. Clinton solicited sex from her -- a solicitation that she says culminated in Mr. Clinton's exposing himself.
At a news conference at his Washington office, Robert S. Bennett, a lawyer for Mr. Clinton, denigrated the lawsuit on technical merits and described it as a "vicious and mean-spirited" publicity stunt.
Mr. Bennett also denounced conservatives who have been advising Ms. Jones and suggested that the motives for the lawsuit are either to hinder Mr. Clinton politically or financial gain for Ms. Jones.
As he has earlier, Mr. Bennett, asserted that the events described by Ms. Jones did not happen.
"The president has no recollection of ever meeting [her]," Mr. Bennett said. He added that it was possible that Mr. Clinton and Ms. Jones were together in the hotel room in question -- the room was set up as a temporary office -- but insisted, "There was no inappropriate or sexu- al conduct with this woman."
Mr. Bennett's mood was defiant. But the lawsuit, which presidential historians say is unprecedented, seemed to deepen the sense inside and outside the White House that this is a president under attack.
"For Bill Clinton, what this means is a perpetual low-grade toothache that is not going to go away," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. Asked about the lawsuit yesterday at a photo session in the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton replied: "I don't have anything to add to what Mr. Bennett said. . . . I'm not going to dignify this by commenting on it."
Ms. Jones did not appear before reporters in Little Rock yesterday, when her suit was filed on the last day before the three-year statute of limitations expired.
But one of her two newly appointed attorneys, Joseph Cammarata of Fairfax, Va., read a statement saying she would donate to charity any financial compensation she receives.
'Not about money'
"This case is not about money," the statement said. "This case is about character and integrity. This case is about the powerful taking advantage of the weak."
The other one of her two lawyers who abruptly entered the case this week was Gilbert K. Davis, a former assistant U.S. attorney ++ in Northern Virginia who practices in Fairfax. He was described by colleagues as a skilled trial lawyer and as a Republican, but not a party activist.
"He's comfortable with the bib-overall crowd," said Frank Dunham, who worked alongside Mr. Davis in the U.S. attorney's office in the early 1970s.
Mr. Dunham said Mr. Davis often tries cases in Kentucky, West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. "This guy is country all the way."
Mr. Bennett, by contrast, is a renowned Washington "super-lawyer" whose top-of-the-line legal fees will now become the personal responsibility of the president. Mr. Bennett said he would file motions to try to dismiss the case.
But his client's immediate problem is opinion polls showing that only a third of the electorate believes that Mr. Clinton has a "good" sense of ethics and moral values.
Allegations surrounding Mr. Clinton's sex life were first aired during the 1992 presidential campaign, when another former Arkansas state employee, Gennifer Flowers, said she and Mr. Clinton had a 12-year affair and that Mr. Clinton got her a job to keep her quiet.
Mr. Clinton denied that allegation, but all but admitted extra-marital affairs in an extraordinary prime-time TV appearance with his wife. His election, aides said, proved that Americans were uninterested in such personal revelations.
But the accusations made since he became president involve more serious questions: Did Mr. Clinton use the Arkansas State Police to pick up women for him? And do his actions constitute the kind of abusive behavior toward women that he has denounced during the Tailhook scandal and on other occasions?
According to Ms. Jones' lawsuit, she met Mr. Clinton on May 8, 1991, when she was working at the registration desk at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.
A state trooper in Mr. Clinton's security detail, identified in the lawsuit as Danny Ferguson, approached Ms. Jones and a friend and talkedawhile.
Later, the suit alleges, the trooper reappeared at the registration desk, delivered a piece of paper to Ms. Jones with a four-digit number on it and said, "The governor would like to meet with you."
Ms. Jones, who then earned $6.35 a hour in her state secretarial job, said she went to the hotel suite, hoping it could mean a promotion. Mr. Ferguson, also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, stayed in the hall.
Mr. Clinton, the lawsuit alleges, closed the door and engaged in a few minutes of small talk, asking Ms. Jones about her job and telling her that her boss was his "good friend."
She says Mr. Clinton abruptly pulled her toward him.
When she retreated, the lawsuit says, he approached her again, uttering such statements as, "I love your curves."
"While saying these things, Clinton put his hand on plaintiff's leg and started sliding it toward the hem of plaintiff's culottes," the lawsuit states. "Clinton also bent down to attempt to kiss Jones on the neck."
Tried to distract him
The suit alleges that Ms. Jones asked him, "What are you doing?" and that she tried to distract him by mentioning his wife.
Mr. Clinton then approached the sofa, the lawsuit states, and he lowered his trousers and underwear and asked her to perform oral sex.
The lawsuit also claims that "there were distinguishing characteristics in Clinton's genital area that were obvious to Jones." Her attorneys would not elaborate.
Ms. Jones says she refused to do what Mr. Clinton asked. As she left the room, the lawsuit states, Mr. Clinton told her: "You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves."
Instead, she immediately told two friends, her sister, her mother and her fiance, all of whom have confirmed this account.
She didn't make her claim in public, however, until Feb. 11, after a conservative publication, the American Spectator, reported that Mr. Ferguson had suggested that Ms. Jones consented to casual sex with the governor.
Legal scholars disagreed yesterday on the likelihood that this case would go to trial.
Normally, sexual harassment cases are filed before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII, which requires that the claim be made within 180 days.
Because Ms. Jones didn't file a timely complaint, her lawyers are VTC instead suing on the ground that her constitutional rights were violated and for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
Ronald S. Cooper, a Washington lawyer with experience in sexual harassment law, said much depends on how the judge assigning the case "feels about the question of taking issues away from juries."
Must be a pattern
But Susan Estrich, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Southern California with strong ties to the Democratic Party, said that even if Ms. Jones' account is true, it might not constitute sexual harassment under the law anyway.
"There has to be a pattern, and the behavior has to be severe and pervasive," she said. "The worst that can be said is that it was a 15-minute exercise of extremely bad judgment which violated no law."
But sexual harassment is an evolving area of law.
"If there is a quid-pro-quo situation -- where sexual favors are demanded as a condition of employment, for instance -- the EEOC has ruled there doesn't always have to be a pattern," Mr. Cooper said. "The more egregious the conduct and the more unambiguous the act, the less you need a pattern."
Bruce Fein, a conservative legal scholar, said he finds the claims that Ms. Jones' civil rights were violated "an exceptionally unpersuasive legal argument," but said that she might have a claim in the state grounds of infliction of emotional distress.
"I think there's a substantial chance of her getting her claim heard on the merits," he said. "That doesn't mean she'll win. That's what juries are for."
Now, however, both sides are behaving as though the jury they care about most is that of public opinion.
Clinton loyalists, including Vice President Al Gore, used identical phrases in attacking Ms. Jones' motivations and hammering at the conservatives who have given her claims wide circulation.
Questions about motive
Mr. Gore mentioned the comments of Charlotte Brown, an older sister of Ms. Jones. Ms. Brown, an admirer of Mr. Clinton, said her sister was suing only for the money.
But the sister did not contest that a solicitation by Mr. Clinton happened; in fact, she repeated her sister's accusations.
"She told me she went up to the room and seen him and she told me he made, you know, sexual advances," Ms. Brown said. "She refused."
The lawsuit continued to cause anguish for feminist leaders who rushed to the aid of Anita Hill in 1991 -- the year that Ms. Jones said she was harassed by Mr. Clinton.
Leaders of the National Organization for Women were particularly stung by criticism that Ms. Hill, a well-spoken, Ivy League-educated lawyer -- and friend to Democrats -- was given the benefit of the doubt, while Ms. Jones was being given short shrift.
In a statement issued yesterday, NOW's president, Patricia Ireland, harshly criticized the conservatives who have aligned themselves with Ms. Jones, but she added: "Every Paula Jones deserves to be heard, no matter how old she is and how long ago the incident occurred."