Jones Case Judge May Cite Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 1998; Page A04
The federal judge who presided over the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit yesterday raised the prospect that she might hold President Clinton in contempt of court because of apparently misleading answers he gave about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky during a deposition in the Jones case.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, in a ruling released in Little Rock, said she has "concerns" that Clinton may have deceived her in light of his televised acknowledgment last month that he had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky. In his Jan. 17 Jones deposition, Clinton denied having had "sexual relations" or an "extramarital affair" with the former White House intern, and professed not to remember whether he had ever been alone with her.
The impact that Wright's new concerns could have on a case she dismissed in April remained murky last night. The usual legal recourse against people suspected of lying under oath is to prosecute them for perjury, not to hold them in contempt of court, legal experts said last night. And independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is already investigating whether Clinton committed perjury in the Jones case.
Wright did not expand on her cryptic reference, buried in a footnote of her ruling, to the possibility that she could hold Clinton in contempt, nor did she say how or when this possibility might be explored. At a minimum, some legal experts suggested, the reference might be meant to signal her ire at having been misled in a deposition she supervised.
The order she handed down yesterday was in response to requests from news organizations and from Jones that Wright reverse her earlier decision keeping most of the testimony in the case under seal. Wright essentially split the difference, agreeing to make public nearly in their entirety transcripts of depositions by Jones, Clinton and Arkansas trooper Danny Ferguson, but rejecting requests that other depositions or the videotape of Clinton's testimony be released from her gag order.
The most striking thing she said, however, was buried in footnote five. "Although the Court has concerns about the nature of the President's . . . deposition testimony given his recent public statements, the Court makes no findings at this time regarding whether the President may be in contempt," Wright wrote.
That comment was volunteered. None of the parties to the case had asked her to rule on the subject or suggested in their filings, submitted weeks before Clinton's televised statement, that his admission was relevant to the disclosure issue.
"Her statement in footnote five is certainly intriguing," said Donovan Campbell Jr., Jones's lead attorney.
Campbell said Jones, who is appealing Wright's dismissal of her case, has been exploring what "legal options" had opened up for her in the wake of Clinton's admission of a relationship with Lewinsky. In his Aug. 17 address, Clinton said his answers about Lewinsky in the Jones deposition were "legally accurate," but he said he had been "misleading" the public when he denied having sexual relations with her.
Robert S. Bennett, the president's attorney in the Jones case, did not return a telephone message yesterday. James Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said: "As the president has stated, he testified truthfully on Jan. 17. Beyond that, we don't have any comment."
Wright's ruling was a reminder of how the Jones case continues to have undesired consequences for Clinton. But it's not clear how Wright could proceed with any contempt action against Clinton. Legal experts said that while federal judges can impose civil contempt on their own authority, that is typically done in order to compel testimony or secure compliance with a court order. In addition, Wright's power to punish courtroom misbehavior could be complicated by the constitutional question of whether a federal judge can impose sanctions on the president.
"Although the President does object [to lifting the gag order], his deposition has largely been made public and has been the subject of intense scrutiny in the wake of his public admission that he was 'misleading' with regard to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky," Wright wrote. She ruled that the depositions of Clinton and Ferguson, both defendants in the case, and Jones be made public via the Internet on Sept. 28 unless any of the parties appeals by Sept. 15.
The depositions would be redacted to excise the names of other women with alleged links to Clinton who were mentioned in questioning.
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