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Robert S. Bennett and Paula Jones/washingtonpost.com montage
President Clinton's legal team, lead by Robert S. Bennett, right, has closely examined the life of Paula Jones. (Montage by Giovanni Calabro/washingtonpost.com)

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Related Items
_ Clinton Accused Special Report

_ Excerpts from the deposition of Paula Jones last fall

_ Key Player: Robert S. Bennett

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Clinton Team Picks Apart Jones's Life

By Peter Baker and Lorraine Adams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 23, 1998; Page A01

The 11th-floor New York Avenue law offices with a strategic view of Washington's majestic landmarks are a fair distance from the one-stoplight town of Lonoke, Ark. But these days there is little about Lonoke's most famous native daughter that is not known in the polished suites of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Piece by piece, President Clinton's top-dollar legal team has taken apart the life of Paula Jones, examining topics from her job history to her possible sex partners. They turned up a check she bounced when reimbursing the Arkansas government for personal calls made on state phones. They found previous employers who fired her for tardiness or other reasons. They scoured personnel records and discovered she typed only 24 words per minute and scored 121 out of 174 on an Arkansas state clerical examination.

Venturing into more salacious territory, they interviewed as many as a half-dozen men who claimed to have had sex with her, including some who said they met her casually at parties or bars and then engaged in quick encounters, according to people close to the case. One former boss signed an affidavit alleging that she pursued him at work and that they slept together. After their short-lived relationship ended, he fired her -- in part, he said, because she dressed too provocatively.

Now that the lawyers essentially have finished gathering evidence and made the final pretrial effort to get Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit thrown out, a picture has emerged of who the president's defense team is and where it is headed. Led by veterans of past high-profile political cases, the Clinton legal squad is following an aggressive and political risky strategy centered on Jones herself. After all the attention focused on a president linked by fact or rumor to a host of women -- most recently and most perilously Monica S. Lewinsky -- Clinton's lawyers hope to turn the spotlight with blinding intensity on the life of his most persistent accuser.

"Does her story make sense? It's always been our position to point out why it doesn't make sense," said Mitchell S. Ettinger, a Clinton attorney. "No one's going to argue they weren't in a room together. And you don't have to call her a complete liar. But everything she's said -- about her injuries to her job, her reactions to this, her reasons for filing suit -- it's not going to add up."

The tactics have not been well received in Dallas, where the Jones legal team is based. They bristle at the testimony sought from purported former lovers, saying that even if true it has nothing to do with being accosted by Clinton. The president's camp has stopped at little "to try to slime our client," said David M. Pyke, one of Jones's lawyers. "Despite their public statements, they have not taken the high road."

The cornerstone of the Clinton defense is that Jones has not shown that then-Gov. Clinton or anyone else in Arkansas government penalized the $4.93-an-hour clerk for rebuffing a sexual advance during a state conference at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991. Even if he did lure her to a suite, expose himself and ask for sex -- as she has charged and he has denied -- at worst the encounter was a single boorish pass that was turned down with no adverse workplace consequence, according to this argument.

Personnel records and affidavits filed last week along with Clinton's motion for summary judgment indicated that Jones received satisfactory job reviews and pay raises totaling 25 percent over two years. Supervisors testified they were unaware of the encounter with Clinton and were never ordered to punish her.

"Every person who ever dealt with her, worked with her, supervisory or otherwise -- no one ever heard of this incident, of her meeting with the governor, or that any job action should be taken against her," said Ettinger. "You've got to show that there's job detriment, or some appreciable effects on her job. She got every merit raise available to her and she got the full amount."

Jones maintains that others got more money and that she was moved to a dead-end assignment after returning from maternity leave. Even if there were no direct retribution, her lawyers argue, the alleged encounter itself constituted sexual harassment under court rulings that hold that a single incident is enough to win a case if especially severe.

Thus, it was significant that in her November deposition, made public last week, Jones added new allegations that subtly make the incident sound more offensive. She said that while warning her to keep quiet, Clinton momentarily blocked the door when she tried to leave, that he tried to kiss her twice instead of just nuzzling her neck and that he tried to grope her crotch rather than just caress her thigh.

The Clinton team may attack those variations to undermine her credibility if the case goes to trial as scheduled on May 27. And it has engaged in extensive efforts to try to paint her as a money-hungry tool of conservatives. The president's lawyers issued a subpoena to the Chicago office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, to try to show that one of his partners helped advise Jones's previous lawyers. They tried but failed to subpoena a conservative New York lawyer, George E. Conway, in an effort to prove he was secretly behind the Jones legal arguments. And they dug up financial records to show that Jones used legal defense contributions to kennel her dog while she was in Little Rock for proceedings in the case.

"Their style is the typical large law firm . . . intimidation tactics, which is to drive the opponent into the ground through media leaks and aggressive style," said John W. Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, the Charlottesville-based group that took over the Jones case last fall and quickly found its financial records subpoenaed. They play "super hardball," Whitehead added, "but we're hardball too and that's why we're still in the case."

With prominent Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett at the helm, the Clinton defense team has been seasoned by some of the capital's most infamous legal battles of recent years. It has not been lost on Bennett that three of his four fellow attorneys who will sit with him at the main table if the case goes to trial are women, but he denied that gender was the major factor in their participation. "The truth is the three women on the team are superstars," he said.

Bennett, 58, last argued before a jury nine years ago. He left the 12 men and women in tears, but they also found his client guilty. The case was, however, overturned on appeal.

When Clinton hired him in 1994, Bennett's reputation as an Uebermensch of the Washington legal establishment rested largely on his work as special counsel for the Senate ethics committee looking into the "Keating Five" senators and his negotiation of a presidential pardon for former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger in the Iran-contra scandal. He also has represented Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott concerning racial slurs, Clark A. Clifford in the BCCI bank scandal, then-Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) in a corruption investigation and Clinton friend Harry Thomason in the White House travel office case.

Yet for all of his reputation as a $475-an-hour out-of-court fixer, Bennett is acutely sensitive to suggestions that his trial skills are no longer finely honed. "I haven't had to be in a courtroom," he said of such criticism. "What do I have to do? Turn down dismissals and pardons so I can go to court and prove that I'm not rusty?"

Ettinger's courtroom skills were more recently tested -- in the six-month, 1993 trial of Washington lawyer Robert A. Altman in the BCCI case. Ettinger's cross-examinations of government witnesses were so convincing that jurors afterward said they were angry the government had brought the case.

The 39-year-old Ettinger's association with Bennett dates to 1988, after a two-year stint as chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force in Europe. In the Jones case, Ettinger describes himself as something of a homespun "fact man," primarily dealing with evidence gathering, investigative work and deposing witnesses. "I'm not a legal giant," he said. "It's how you present the facts to a jury." Gennifer Flowers, called to testify about her relationship with Clinton, called Ettinger's cross-examination of her "brutal."

Another key member of the team is Kathlyn Graves, a 47-year-old employment litigator in Little Rock who used to work down the hall from Clinton when he was briefly an attorney at Wright, Lindsey & Jennings. At the firm since 1976, Graves, along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, was one of the first female lawyers in Little Rock. Although she has never had a case that went to trial before presiding U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, Graves brings much-needed knowledge of what "flies and doesn't fly" legally in Arkansas.

The team's legal guru is Amy Sabrin, 46, who was Bennett's deputy counsel in the Keating Five investigation. A former Associated Press reporter, Sabrin crafts the briefs -- long, detail-laden analyses of case law and issues spiced with sound-bite quality lines suitable for a media-intense case. Katharine S. Sexton will play a key role questioning witnesses at trial. An experienced civil litigator, Sexton, 37, has handled other sexual harassment defenses during eight years at the firm and currently represents Jack Kent Cooke's widow, Marlene Ramallo Cooke, in her battle to avoid deportation.

Representing co-defendant Danny Ferguson, the state trooper who escorted Jones to meet Clinton, is Bill W. Bristow, 47, who is also running for Arkansas governor and recently hired Betsey Wright, the former Clinton aide who coined the term "bimbo eruptions" during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Bristow, a Harvard graduate who practices in the small town of Jonesboro, has represented several high-profile clients, including Arkansas State University president John Mangieri, who was fired in 1994 after two secretaries alleged he masturbated in his office in their presence. Mangieri sued for wrongful termination and won a $450,000 settlement.

As Clinton's longtime friend from Arkansas and closest confidant in the White House, Bruce R. Lindsey is the keeper of the secrets. So when the Jones camp began interviewing other women, the president's private lawyers went straight to Lindsey with a list of about 15 women: Who are they? What are their connections to Clinton? Which of them are going to be trouble?

With the help of private investigators, the Clinton lawyers had to conduct their own parallel inquiry into their client's life to be prepared for whatever came at them. To counter the story of former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who according to sources testified that Clinton once kissed and groped her, Bennett obtained an affidavit from her friend, Julie Hiatt Steele, swearing that Willey asked her to lie about what she knew of the incident.

After Lewinsky's name showed up on a witness list Dec. 5, Bennett asked the president about their relationship. Assured there were no sexual relations, Bennett obtained a copy of an affidavit from Lewinsky to that effect and figured that took care of the matter.

It was not that simple. For all of their preparations, the lawyers were kept in the dark about important matters. Clinton did not tell Bennett that he met with Lewinsky at the White House on Dec. 28 even as she was considering how to respond to the Jones subpoena. The president's close friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., did not mention that he was trying to help Lewinsky find a job at the request of Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, and reportedly with the president's knowledge. And Clinton did not clear it with Bennett or anyone else when he summoned Currie, then a likely witness in the Jones case, the day after his Jan. 17 deposition to compare recollections about his ties to Lewinsky. Associates report that Bennett was furious about being blindsided, but he declined to discuss the issue for this article.

While on the defensive about Clinton's sex life, Bennett's team went on the offensive with regard to Jones's. Last June, Bennett publicly disavowed plans for such an inquiry after complaints from feminists and other critics. But the investigation did not stop. The Clinton team simply collected the information and quietly passed it along to Bristow, Ferguson's lawyer.

Since Ferguson had none of Clinton's political worries about using a woman's sex life against her, he became the vehicle for that avenue of attack. Bristow played down the arrangement, characterizing it as simply a case of Bennett's receiving unsolicited tips and forwarding them.

To undercut the Clinton strategy, the Jones lawyers dropped a defamation count against Ferguson; if she no longer claimed that her reputation was harmed, they reasoned, her past would no longer be relevant in court. But the other side continues to look for ways to introduce its evidence, such as in response to Jones's saying she was shocked at the sight of Clinton's exposed penis.

Jones's advocates think they have a potent counter-argument: The Violence Against Women Act, they point out, bars the introduction of a sexual assault victim's sexual background at trial, unless she places it in controversy. The act was signed into law in 1994 by President Clinton.

As dicey as the sex-life strategy may be for the Clinton team, it faces an even more unseemly dilemma over how to handle what once was considered the most explosive element of Jones's case -- the "distinguishing characteristics" she claimed she could identify on the president's anatomy. Ever since Clinton's attorneys produced testimony from doctors disputing her portrayal, her current lawyers have minimized the issue.

So now the question presents itself: Does the Clinton defense team introduce the issue itself at trial to attack Jones's credibility? As a legal matter, there is some appeal in doing so, particularly because she has given a rather detailed description of the size, shape and direction of Clinton's penis even though she said she saw it for only five seconds before fleeing the room. Yet as a political question, it seems almost unimaginable that lawyers for the president of the United States deliberately would open to public discussion what his genitals look like.

The awkward balance between the legal and the political has warped the case from the beginning and complicated efforts to settle it. Bennett once offered Clinton to raise enough money along with Thomason to pay Jones to drop the matter, but the president has insisted on fighting it out in court, knowing any large payment would be seen as an admission. In recent weeks, there have been tentative contacts between the two sides about reopening settlement talks, but nothing serious has ensued.

"When you have a case like this, you cannot look at it strictly as a legal case or strictly as a political case," Bennett said. "It's a combination and you always have to factor in both ramifications."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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