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Jones Case Judge May Cite Clinton

Wright Judge Susan Webber Wright. (Reuters)

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  • Jones Case Judge May Cite Clinton (Washington Post, Sept. 2)

  • Text of Judge Wright's Sept. Order

  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 17, 1999; Page A1

    Just days after winning acquittal at his impeachment trial, President Clinton was confronted with a new legal threat yesterday as a federal judge signaled that she may hold him in contempt of court for providing misleading testimony about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw the Paula Jones lawsuit that led to Clinton's impeachment, told attorneys involved in the case yesterday afternoon that she will explore civil sanctions against the president and gave them until Friday to file the first motions related to the process.

    The judge's comments, made at her own initiative during a telephone conference call on an unrelated issue, took lawyers on both sides by surprise and indicated that the consequences of the Lewinsky scandal may not be completely over for Clinton, even if his trial in the Senate is. A contempt proceeding could revisit many of the same issues about Clinton's veracity examined in Congress, leading to written briefs and even a full-blown hearing in a Little Rock courtroom.

    A civil contempt citation could force the president to pay tens of thousands of dollars and conceivably aid independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr if he seeks to indict Clinton. Starr reconvened his Lewinsky grand jury at the federal courthouse in Washington yesterday after weeks of inactivity, although it remained unknown what it was doing behind closed doors.

    Wright first raised the possibility of contempt in a footnote to an order last September but said yesterday that she waited to follow through because she "did not want to interfere in any way with the impeachment proceedings then underway" or with Jones's attempt to reinstate her dismissed case. Jones has since dropped her appeal in exchange for an $850,000 settlement from Clinton.

    With those matters now out of the way, Wright said, "I believe that now it is time for the Court to address the contempt issue."

    For the president's weary defenders, that was a dispiriting development, although they were relieved at least that she waited until after the Senate trial, when a contempt finding could have been far more devastating. Compared with the war they just won, they viewed a contempt dispute now as a far less grave threat. The White House referred calls to Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett, who had no comment.

    Unlike impeachment or a criminal trial, a civil contempt proceeding would not require as high a burden to prove presidential misconduct, as Wright alluded to in an order filed after a conference call convened to discuss a dispute over how to divide the Jones settlement among competing attorneys.

    "The issue in an impeachment proceeding, for instance, is the President's fitness for office, while contempt proceedings are designed to preserve the integrity of the Court's proceeding and provide a means of enforcement of its orders," she wrote.

    Wright enjoys broad discretion to decide what constitutes contempt and how to penalize it. Legal experts said she would not need to find that Clinton committed perjury, which requires that the testimony at issue be knowingly false and material to the case; she could merely conclude that misleading statements were egregious enough to warrant punishment.

    While maintaining that Clinton's testimony in the Jones case was literally true, his own lawyers have acknowledged that it was deliberately misleading and even "maddening." For example, Clinton denied under oath that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky under a definition used during his Jan. 17, 1998, deposition, said he had no specific recollection of being alone with the former White House intern and testified that Lewinsky's false affidavit denying their affair was "absolutely true."

    After Starr sent his impeachment referral to Congress and Wright raised the contempt issue, Bennett sent her a letter in October asking her to disregard the Lewinsky affidavit as "misleading and not true." While that is sure to be used against Clinton, his lawyers may argue that that showed an attempt to correct the record.

    Wright flew to Washington to preside over the Clinton deposition last year and several people close to the case believe she was offended to later learn that he was deceptive. "The judge is serious about this," said John W. Whitehead, one of Jones's attorneys. "She raised this thing on her own."

    "It may be that the judge is firing a shot over his bow and is saying, 'Look, sir, I was entitled to more truth and candor than you gave me and I'm very angry,'" said Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., a University of Pennsylvania law professor. Hazard said Clinton's testimony was more than enough to justify a contempt finding. "There are cases where litigants have been less evasive than that" and been fined, he said.

    Still, Wright gave the Clinton team something of an escape hatch. She disclosed to the lawyers that she was contacted last month by Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), one of the House prosecutors, about testifying in the Senate trial, which she said she refused to do. Instead, one of her clerks filed an affidavit stating that Clinton was looking at Bennett when the lawyer said Lewinsky's affidavit meant "there was absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form" between her and the president.

    Wright said she did not believe she had to recuse herself from the contempt issue as a result of this but suggested she would if Clinton asks her to and gave the president until Friday to decide whether to make such a request. If she steps aside, the matter would be assigned to another judge.

    Lawyers in the case doubt any judge would seek jail time but the court could impose a fine or force Clinton to pay some Jones expenses, such as preparing for his deposition.

    Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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