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Paula Jones case could go 3 ways, but won't go away Supreme Court's OK to pursue allegations keeps it in spotlight

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- When the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 last week that President Clinton's status as an incumbent president granted him no immunity from Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit, three potential outcomes immediately loomed, each with its own consequences.

The first scenario is dismissal. The second is a settlement. The third is a trial.

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Clinton, of course, hopes for the first while dreading the last. And because neither is certain, the middle course -- a settlement -- is the one legal experts would urge him to pursue.

"The nation is almost obsessed by sexual cases, but this [trial] would be so huge it would make all previous cases seem trivial," said Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University. "If I were the president's lawyer, I would advise him to settle almost at any cost."

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Presidential scholars agree. "Clinton seems very presidential right now, before this bombshell," said Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University political scientist. "The big question is, will he now be cut down to the size he was in the first two years of his presidency? He should do what he can to make this go away."

That will be tricky. Jones' lawyers insist the only way to make it disappear is for the president, at a minimum, to apologize to Jones and perhaps pay her some money.

"What Paula Jones wants is her good name and reputation back from Bill Clinton," said Joseph Cammarata, one of her two attorneys. "He's got it. She wants it -- and we're going to get it for her."

Clinton's legal advisers, who have vigorously denied Jones' assertions, are adamant, too. They say the president will admit to no transgressions.

"The president did nothing wrong," Clinton's lawyer, Robert S. Bennett, reiterated last week.

Thus, a presidential "apology" that both satisfies Jones' demand for redemption and spares Clinton from admitting he made a crude advance toward her would be an artful statement indeed. It would have the president say, in effect: "I didn't do what she claims, but I'm sorry it happened."

Which brings the question full circle: What did occur between Paula Jones and Bill Clinton on May 8, 1991, in Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel? And why did Jones sue three years later?

The alleged incident

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That day, Jones was working at the hotel registration desk for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. She was 24 and unmarried. She had recently moved to the city from rural Arkansas. Her salary was $6.35 an hour.

According to Jones and Pamela Blackard, a co-worker and friend, a state trooper on Clinton's security detail named Danny Lee Ferguson summoned Jones to a suite to meet the governor. As she left, Jones told Blackard she hoped it would mean a promotion.

Instead, Jones asserts, Clinton tried unsuccessfully to kiss her on the neck. She says Clinton then pulled down his pants and asked her to perform a sex act.

Jones says she refused and immediately complained of the incident to Blackard, two of her sisters, her mother and another friend. Jones also swore the women to secrecy -- she says she feared repercussions at work and in the community.

After Clinton was elected president, Ferguson and other troopers began boasting that they had routinely procured women for Clinton when he was governor. In one account, in an anti-Clinton magazine, the American Spectator, Ferguson told of Clinton tryst in the Excelsior Hotel with a woman named "Paula."

Jones feared that people she knew would connect her and the "Paula" in the article. She said she also bristled at the insinuation that the encounter had ended as a sexual liaison and at Ferguson's claim that "Paula" had volunteered to be Clinton's girlfriend.

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She called a lawyer.

The lawsuit

Not long afterward, Jones leveled her accusations at a Washington news conference. Because the event was sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Committee, it was dismissed by George Stephanopoulos, then the president's chief spokesman, as "a cheap political fund-raising trick." Most of the news media ignored it.

Jones' Arkansas lawyers turned the case over to Cammarata, a Washington litigator, and Gilbert K. Davis of Fairfax, Va.

Their suit, filed three years ago, accuses Clinton of sexual misconduct and both the president and Ferguson of defamation. Because the federal statute of limitation had passed, Jones' lawyers relied on a Reconstruction-era law to assert that the incident had violated Jones' civil rights.

In the lawsuit, Cammarata and Davis included this parting shot: "There were distinguishing characteristics in Clinton's genital area that were obvious to Jones."

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The fallout

After the suit was filed, the attacks on Jones from the Clinton camp became more personal.

"Drag a hundred dollars through a trailer park, and there's no telling what you'll find," James Carville, a Clinton adviser, sneered at the time.

Much of the news media took the same tack. Newsweek's bureau chief, Evan Thomas, characterized Jones as a "sleazy woman with big hair coming out of the trailer parks." But in time, facts emerged that tended to cast Jones in a better light, including her pledge to donate to charity any money she received from Clinton and her refusal of $700,000 to appear on a tabloid TV show.

Some analysts who had attacked Jones later defended her.

"Americans who dismiss Paula Jones as a tawdry sideshow may in for a surprise," Thomas said in a mea culpa, regretting his own slurs against Jones.

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"Jones' evidence is highly persuasive," another former critic, Stuart Taylor Jr., concluded in the American Lawyer.

Hardball tactics from Clinton's defenders, meanwhile, hardened Jones' resolve. A proposed settlement unraveled in 1994, hours before Jones filed suit, after White House officials put out word that Jones had delayed filing because she knew she had a weak case.

Davis said pointedly last week: "The reason she hadn't filed was to accord a courtesy to the office of the presidency. They blew up those discussions."

Invoking a 1982 Supreme Court decision granting a sitting president immunity to lawsuits stemming from official acts, Bennett's first defense was that an incumbent president cannot ever be sued by a private individual. But Jones' lawyers asserted that the 1982 decision did not apply to conduct that occurred before a president was elected.

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that Clinton had no constitutional right to block Jones' lawsuit while he is in office. The ruling sends the case back to a federal trial court.

The scenarios

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Bennett's next move will be a motion in that trial court to dismiss the case on the ground that it lacks a legal foundation.

He will argue the following: First, what Jones alleges did not happen. Second, even if it did happen, it did not constitute sexual harassment because there was no pattern of actions that created a "hostile environment" or affected Jones' working conditions. Third, she waited too long to file a sexual harassment claim.

Even legal experts in Jones' camp have acknowledged that these arguments are probably stronger than Bennett's immunity defense. And should the trial judge agree to Clinton's request to dismiss the case as lacking merit -- and this decision is upheld on appeal -- the case would end. Clinton would claim vindication.

On the other hand, if the case is not dismissed, the advantage would shift decisively to Jones. Then, experts say, Clinton would be desperate to settle.

Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster, said last week that so far there has not been "any dip at all" in Clinton's public approval rating because of the Jones case. Others warn that this could certainly change if the case moves on to the discovery phase, when lawyers would subpoena documents and take sworn statements from key figures, including Clinton.

"The real danger he faces here is not Paula Jones vs. Bill Clinton -- it's who else can come forward in the course of the [litigation] and make other charges of sexual misbehavior," said Edward J. Rollins, a Republican strategist. "A president needs to have the respect of his country and the respect of his party, and now this president [risks] becoming an object of ridicule."

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Legal experts tend to doubt that the trial judge would allow photographic evidence that might bolster Jones' assertion that she noted "distinguishing characteristics" on Clinton's body. But her lawyers have signaled that they would try to establish a "pattern" of such behavior by Clinton, by seeking testimony from state troopers and other women Clinton might have been seen with and by questioning the president about his sexual history.

"It's not the legal claims that are most threatening to him," said Lynne Bernabei, a Washington litigator who pursues sexual harassment claims. "From a legal standpoint, those are weak in terms of having any impact on the terms and conditions of her employment, which is the central requirement of [sexual harassment law].

"What's dangerous to Clinton are the details of what happened in that hotel room coming out in testimony. And those corroborating witnesses. That's why I think he should settle out of court."

What are Jones' incentives for a settlement?

One is that her lawyers acknowledge that their client is simply weary of the case. Her lawyers also sound as though they are nearly out of gas. While Bennett is being paid well -- thanks to an insurance policy taken out in 1992 by Clinton -- Cammarata and Davis are not being paid at all.

"We're in the hole so deep," Cammarata said in an interview.

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It could get worse. If Davis succeeds in becoming attorney general in Virginia this year, state law requires him to suspend his law practice.

And so, both sides have compelling reasons to settle. But nothing in this case has proved inevitable except that it doesn't go away.

"We talked with Bennett before we went on 'Larry King Live,' after the Supreme Court decision," Cammarata said. "He said, 'Congratulations.' He didn't say anything about settling. This case just keeps going forward."

Pub Date: 6/01/97


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