President May Not Fight Contempt Ruling
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 14, 1999; Page A1
President Clinton does not plan to challenge a federal judge's order finding him in contempt of court for giving false testimony about his sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, according to sources familiar with the advice he has received from his attorneys and advisers.
The contempt order issued Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright of Arkansas strongly condemns Clinton's efforts to hide his affair with Lewinsky from lawyers pressing the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, but it carries relatively light penalties.
Several Clinton advisers are recommending that he accept Wright's sanctions -- which call for compensating her and Jones's lawyers for some expenses, and refers Clinton's conduct to Arkansas judicial authorities for a ruling on his fitness to practice law -- as an acceptable price for bringing closure to a legal controversy that has haunted his presidency since 1994.
Although the prevailing assumption among Clinton's legal and political advisers is that he should not appeal, he has not been presented a final recommendation, sources said.
Clinton's attorneys are still reviewing the judge's order, studying in particular whether accepting Wright's sanctions now might somehow expose Clinton to increased legal jeopardy if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr chooses to pursue a criminal perjury case against the president down the road. Clinton's lawyers said they could also change their minds and decide to challenge the order if Wright ends up assigning a prohibitively high figure that Clinton would be required to reimburse Jones's legal team.
Nonetheless, the most likely option, according to White House sources, is that the White House will announce within several days that, while it does not agree with Wright's conclusion that Clinton lied under oath, it has no plans to appeal.
Ever since he first revealed his relationship with Lewinsky, Clinton has maintained that he was misleading, but legally accurate, when he testified in his January 1998 deposition that he was never alone with the former White House intern and did not have a sexual relationship with her.
Yesterday, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said, "I don't believe the president has changed his view" that he did not lie in the Jones case.
But Clinton's side long ago conceded that "reasonable people," as White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff told the House last December, might conclude that Clinton's testimony "crossed the line" from legally evasive to outright false.
One thing that Clinton has never conceded, however, is that it was wrong for him to dance so close to the line in the first place.
Over the course of the past year, Clinton has apologized for many things: for his extramarital relationship with Lewinsky, for lying to the public for eight months about it, for the distraction the episode caused to the nation's business.
But he remains convinced, according to aides, that it was appropriate for him to try to evade telling the Jones lawyers about his affair with Lewinsky by providing what he described last December as "difficult, and ambiguous, and unhelpful" answers.
Clinton's legal position is that he could deny having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky because under his understanding of the definitions in the Jones case having oral sex performed on him did not qualify as sex.
His ethical position, according to aides, is that it was acceptable for him to mislead interrogators in a case he believed was illegitimate. As Clinton said when he first acknowledged his relationship with Lewinsky in a televised speech last August, "these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit."
Lockhart said Clinton has not, so far as he knows, changed his view on the acceptability of misleading Jones's attorneys in Wright's presence last year.
But in her ruling Monday, Wright made clear how strongly she disagrees. She concluded that Clinton had willfully disregarded her orders that he reveal to the Jones lawyers any sexual contact or sexual propositions involving government employees.
Citing Clinton's denial of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in his deposition, Wright said, "the record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence that the president responded to plaintiff's questions by giving false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process."
And in her order Monday, Wright essentially warned Clinton that challenging her decision could produce a protracted legal ordeal, saying "the president is hereby put on notice that this court will take evidence at any future hearings -- including if necessary testimony from witnesses -- on all matters concerning the president's conduct in this lawsuit which may warrant a finding of civil contempt."
Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University, agreed that Clinton would be well advised to take the judge's reprimand without complaint.
"I don't think any federal judge who wanted to uphold the dignity of the law could have avoided this action," said Saltzburg, "but the actual sanction is much less than he was actually liable for," noting that she could have exacted a higher financial penalty or could have cited him for criminal contempt.
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