Clinton Lawyer Backpedals on JonesBy Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5 1997; Page A01
President Clinton's lawyer abruptly shifted direction yesterday and disavowed any plans to attack Paula Corbin Jones's past sex life as part of his strategy to defend against her allegations of sexual harassment.
During a day-long media blitz, attorney Robert S. Bennett insisted he was misunderstood when he told television audiences over the weekend that he was prepared to "put her reputation at issue" if the Jones camp tried to use reports of previous Clinton dalliances.
"It was never my intention of attacking her sex life and it's not my intention now," Bennett said in an interview yesterday in his Washington law office a block from the White House. "My reference to her reputation was her reputation for veracity."
The reversal came after the White House was engulfed in an uproar from feminists who said they felt betrayed by a president who had championed their causes and from conservatives accusing Clinton of hypocrisy. The issue has proved so sensitive at the White House that officials steadfastly have declined to comment four days in a row. A presidential news conference tentatively scheduled for next week where the matter was sure to be raised has been postponed.
The squall over Bennett's comments kept alive a story Clinton had hoped would fade away, at least temporarily, after last week's unanimous Supreme Court decision rejecting his request that Jones's lawsuit be delayed until he leaves office. While saying Bennett spoke for the president on the matter, the White House yesterday tersely pointed out Clinton's support for a 1994 law aimed at limiting interrogations of victims of sexual crimes.
Bennett has been investigating Jones's past as part of his preparation of Clinton's defense. His team took an affidavit Saturday from a man who said he was once her supervisor at an Arkansas store and alleged that she propositioned him, slept with him and ultimately had to be fired for her unprofessional behavior.
On Sunday, Bennett appeared on several talk shows and said "it's a two-way street" when asked about attempts by Jones to introduce Clinton's sex life into the case. Jones's attorneys have suggested they may produce evidence that the then-Arkansas governor used state trooper bodyguards to solicit women for him, just as Jones alleged happened to her during a state conference at a Little Rock hotel in May 1991.
"If Paula Jones insists on having her day in court and her trial and she really wants to put her reputation at issue, as we hear, we are prepared to do it," Bennett said on one Sunday show. "Is this judge going to say, 'Well, we're going to permit you to go into calling all these troopers, but I can't go into her sex life'?" he said on another.
The Jones case is not strictly a sexual harassment complaint because she waited until 1994 to file her lawsuit, after state and federal statutes of limitations had expired. Instead, she charged that Clinton deprived her of her federal civil rights and inflicted emotional distress on her.
Bennett said his main goal would be to win an agreement or a judge's ruling that would put the past lives of both Clinton and Jones out of bounds. He said Jones's sex life would not be relevant except to the extent that she makes her reputation a basis for her claim of being injured.
"The only way Paula Jones's past sex life will come into this case is if she puts it into issue and even then because of the political sensitivity of the issue I, in all likelihood, will not pursue it," he said.
Bennett, who met with the president at the White House yesterday, made his revised statements during a whirlwind series of interviews that included The Washington Post, Associated Press, NBC News, CNN's "Larry King Live" and ABC's "Nightline."
"I'm glad that he's seen the light," said Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, who was among many Clinton allies who spoke out against Bennett's Sunday comments. "That was a retro-defense, the sort of thing we used to do and we don't do anymore."
Another critic, National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland, said she was satisfied. "The result is the president's going to show leadership by not mounting this kind of attack against Paula Jones," Ireland said.
Jones attorney Joseph Cammarata called it "a retreat from the outrageous, desperate tactics and attempts to intimidate and distract from the real issue."
On "Nightline" last night, Bennett left open the possibility of a settlement that would include money for Jones, and not just for charity and her legal expenses as he previously offered. But he vowed to wage "nuclear war" if the case goes to trial. "I will go to war with them, but one of the weapons I will not use in that war is going into Paula Jones's sexual history," he said on "Nightline" and "Larry King Live."
It's unclear how that war may involve David McKinney, 33, of Fort Myers, Fla., who called the Clinton team the day after the Supreme Court ruling and was flown to Washington last Friday night. In a telephone interview last night, McKinney confirmed he signed an affidavit stating that he hired Jones as a secretary at Crown Home Center in Jacksonville, Ark., in 1989 and that she offered to sleep with him. After an encounter, he said, he ended the sexual relationship.
McKinney said he fired her several months later because she often goofed off at work, made billing mistakes, wore provocative clothing and sometimes reported to work smelling of alcohol after apparently staying out all night.
"She was unreliable," he said. "She was constantly late for work, always on the phone with her personal phone calls. . . . She was young, I guess, flirtatious. On the borderline of sometimes wearing bar clothes to work instead of professional clothes. A little bit too revealing."
Cammarata said even if the accusations were true, they were not related to the Clinton case and were an example of "outrageous" tactics.
"It's totally inappropriate," he said. "So what? The best thing they've got is that she was flirtatious. Is that the reason Clinton asked her to come up to the hotel room? Is that the reason he asked her for sex?"
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company