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Clinton may face new legal threat over Jones deposition; Federal judge says denial of Lewinsky affair might warrant contempt charge


WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Arkansas raised a new legal threat to President Clinton yesterday, saying the time had come to decide whether he was guilty of contempt of court when he gave a deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright did not decide immediately. Instead, she gave lawyers in the case a chance to ask that she step aside and pass the case to another judge.

Her actions came just four days after the Senate found the president not guilty on impeachment charges, and more than 10 months after the judge had dismissed Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton.

The White House had no comment, and his private attorney in the lawsuit, Robert S. Bennett, could not be reached.

If Wright or a judge in her place decided that Clinton lied under oath when testifying last year in the Jones case, he could face punishment -- perhaps a fine -- or he might even face a new investigation by an independent counsel.

It is not clear whether a judge may punish a president in office.

The possibility that Clinton might be held in contempt for his testimony in the Jones case in which he denied a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky has hung over his head since September.

Wright said then that the president had recently admitted that his testimony, given in January 1998, was "misleading." She commented: "Given his recent public statements, the court makes no findings at this time regarding whether the president may be in contempt."

Yesterday, Wright made clear that the issue has not been put to rest. She said she could deal with it now because the Jones case has been settled and won't be revived in court. She also said she had been waiting for the impeachment trial to be over.

"I believe that now it is time for the court to address the contempt issue," she added.

Wright stopped short of revealing what her next step will be. Instead, she raised the question of whether she should step aside, because of two developments.

She disclosed that Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican and one of the House impeachment prosecutors, had told her in January that she might be summoned as a witness in that trial -- presumably, to describe what she saw when Clinton gave his deposition in the Jones case, which she attended.

She also noted that her law clerk, Barry Ward, did supply a statement under oath to House prosecutors, commenting on Clinton's appearance during the Jones deposition.

While saying she would not, on her own, take herself out of the Jones case in regard to whether Clinton was guilty of contempt of court, she gave lawyers until noon Friday to ask that she do so.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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