Paula Jones and a House DividedBy Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 9, 1994; Page C01
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. The aging white pickup pulls in front of the elegant Capital Hotel, mingling with the shiny rentals and pricey imports that normally line the front of the city's fanciest digs.
Charlotte and Mark Brown edge from the front seat, costars in a family feud that has cast them in an unlikely role: chief defenders of the president of the United States. Their method: a steady verbal assault against their sister and sister-in-law, Paula Corbin Jones, the woman who last month filed a $700,000 sexual harassment suit against President Clinton.
A tattoo of a heavy-busted woman peeks from beneath Mark Brown's denim shirt as he warily hands the hotel valet a grapefruit-size ring of keys. His beard is tidy from the free trim he received before appearing on a television talk show.
"There's a .45 under the seat," he growls. "I'd like it to be there when I get back."
The weapon secure, the couple saunter to the hotel restaurant for yet another interview in defense of Bill Clinton.
Brown makes no effort to claim that Clinton has been a faithful husband, but he still can't believe the accusations. "To stand up, and here comes a woman in a hotel, and he's in a room and drops his trousers and says, 'Kiss it,' nosirrreee," he says. "I have never known anybody, myself included, to walk up to a woman and say something like that."
In the days since Jones filed her unprecedented lawsuit accusing Clinton of pursuing her for sex in a hotel room here in 1991, the Browns have emerged as a tag team trying to wrestle away whatever high ground there is on this issue and in the process have set off a nasty family feud, pitting them against Mom, Paula and a third sister.
It's not that the Browns doubt all of Jones's story, a fact lost in the harangue of charge and countercharge that the lawsuit has evoked. Charlotte, 33, one of Jones's two older sisters, says she in fact believes that then-Gov. Clinton asked her sister for oral sex in the Excelsior Hotel. She says Jones told her about the incident right after it allegedly happened, and she has no reason to think her sister fabricated the encounter.
No, the principal issue to the Browns is Jones's motivation in filing the suit. And on that front Mark and Charlotte Brown have been unrelenting in publicizing Charlotte's claim that her sister was tickled, not traumatized, by the encounter with the future president. She recalls Paula describing enthusiastically how she had just met the governor.
The Browns talk freely to reporters in good-cop, bad-cop style. Interviews so far have included People magazine, several TV talk shows and the New York tabloids.
Charlotte speaks of love and hope for a sister gone astray.
Mark focuses on money lust and what he says is Jones's cunning way of using men for cash.
He knows about that, he says. Once while dining in a Red Lobster she asked him to buy her a drink. Not just any drink amaretto at five bucks a pop. He said he stopped her after two.
Knowing what Paula's about, knowing what motivates her, Brown says he thought it was his duty to keep her from ruining a president with her schemes.
"She would try to take a man for everything she could," says Brown, a burly former machinist who is running for city council in Cabot, Ark. He is known around town for his strong opinions he was led out of a council meeting last year after shouting vulgarities at the mayor and in this case says he is ready to supply as much information as a judge or jury needs to throw out his sister-in-law's case.
Charlotte says she is in this for the long haul as well. And the reason is her own peace of mind.
"Everybody expected me to be on her side. ... I tried to go along," she says, but "I would not lie for her financial gain. ... Going against my conscience I couldn't do that."
Even if it means trashing her sister in the process. "I wouldn't have done it to hurt her at all. We've always been close."
Since before Jones's lawsuit was filed, the Browns say they were in contact with Clinton's defense team, and information from the couple apparently has made its way to the president's chief defense counsel, Robert Bennett.
Mark Brown says he initiated the contact and has kept the pipeline primed with background on Paula. After realizing Jones was serious about filing the suit, he says he tried to call the White House to "apologize" on the family's behalf. He eventually held conversations with Little Rock attorney Steve Engstrom about what he and Charlotte could do to help.
The Corbin family of Arkansas would never be the same.
Their story would seem anything but grist for a Washington scandal, coming straight from the heart of rural America. Defined by mill town roots, tent revivals and the annual rodeo, Bobby and Delmer Corbin tried to raise their three daughters by strict but simple rules in the crossroads of Lonoke, population 4,022.
Just 30 miles east of Little Rock, it could easily have been 30,000. The town maintains its sleepy feel today, with railroad tracks down the main street and prisoners casually toting files around the city courts. Even as other hamlets near the state capital have been drawn into Little Rock's orbit, and have become ringed with new housing and fast-food restaurants, Lonoke's landscape remains dominated by a network of rice farms.
The sisters were raised in a family that survived on handmade clothes, nightly Bible lessons and church three times a week. The focus, Charlotte says, was on self-sufficiency and supporting one another.
When the Corbin sisters talk about their youth, they describe a world of strict limits, but also one of a strong family. Scripture controlled how they were to act and dress, and the vision of their future only went as far as the fence around a two-acre yard. At the time, it seemed all that was necessary.
"We were raised in a good Christian home," says Lydia Cathey, 29, the middle child, who was reluctant to talk extensively about the family. "We were very happy."
"We were pretty sheltered because of my parents' beliefs. We didn't get to do a lot of things," says Charlotte Brown, who described how, often confined to the yard, she used to slip the board game Life beneath the fence so she and a neighbor could play.
No jewelry. No television. No stylish haircuts.
Schooling, clothes and money were catch as catch can. Their favorite toys were the old boxes her father brought home full of discarded fabric from his job at the local sewing factory material her mother fashioned into long dresses, never pants.
Delmer Corbin didn't work outside the home, and according to the family, Bobby was eventually discarded from the mill just like the scraps he brought home. He first worked hauling heavy trash for the plant, then graduated to an inside job running one of the pattern-cutting machines. When that job was eliminated years later, it was back to heavy lifting, and his body couldn't take it.
He was put on sick leave, then fired after more than 14 years with the company. He worked briefly driving around senior citizens for the local commission on aging. He died at age 60, just after he finished singing for a seniors group in Beebe.
His children remember him not as a man worn down by years in a factory, but as one who delighted in performing gospel music and who was willing to preach when needed. They belonged to the Bible Missionary Church, but Charlotte Brown said her father would freelance for any congregation, as well as warm up the revival crowds with his accordion or piano.
In his later years Bobby relaxed some of the family discipline. Though his wife still disapproved of "worldly" endeavors, Charlotte said their father agreed to sneak them off to the rodeo, a summer highlight in Lonoke. They left the house in dresses, but Bobby let them change into jeans once they were out of Delmer's sight.
"That kind of broke the ice, and Daddy stopped being so strict," says Charlotte.
Meanwhile, the girls had come of age with limited education. Charlotte was removed from school in the eighth grade because of "problems" in an area still adjusting to integration. She said her mother schooled her at home.
Lydia dropped out on her own. She eventually trained as an electrician and now runs an electric repair company with her husband. Paula, determined to get a diploma, didn't have enough credits to graduate from Lonoke High School. So she transferred to nearby Carlisle, which required fewer, says Charlotte Brown.
From there, she worked in a series of clerical jobs before landing at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission as a $12,000-a-year clerk. A few months later she was asked to help out at an annual quality management conference the agency was sponsoring at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel. It was there, she claims, she met the governor of Arkansas for the first time.
The First Meeting
Clinton spoke at the conference and later mingled with the press and participants. That afternoon, Jones says she was approached by State Trooper Danny Ferguson, told the governor wanted to see her and given a piece of paper with a room number written on it.
She discussed the request with a co-worker, Pamela Blackard, a childhood friend from Lonoke who corroborates Jones's story of Ferguson approaching her. Jones decided to go to the room, where, she says, she rebuffed Clinton's advance. Later that day, she confided the basics of her story to Blackard, another friend and both her sisters all of whom believe that an encounter occurred.
She said nothing more about it for more than two years until the American Spectator in December published an extensive story detailing charges by Arkansas state troopers who said they helped Clinton arrange and conceal sexual liaisons. In the Spectator's version, a trooper was quoted as saying that when "Paula" left the room, she said she would be available for Clinton any time.
Jones says she hoped to get a retraction from the magazine and possibly even get Clinton to help her save face by apologizing. She says that when she realized that was unlikely, she took a friend's advice, contacted a lawyer and began considering the lawsuit.
"Maybe people will take it serious if I file a lawsuit. That's what you do if people break the law," she said during one interview before the suit was filed.
Mark and Charlotte Brown, however, heard about the same events and drew very different conclusions.
The Two Camps
The camps formed quickly in the Jones affair, evidence of the fact that two people in a hotel room leave little room for shades of gray.
"This is about money," says Clinton counsel Robert Bennett, who after helping unravel affairs as tangled as the BCCI international banking case now finds his $450-an-hour focus turned on the life and times of a $6.50-an-hour former state employee.
"This case is about the powerful taking advantage of the weak," preached Jones's second lawyer; the first, Danny Traylor, was replaced after a clumsy start that turned his client into a poster girl for the conservative movement and weakened her credibility in the process.
Though placed in the middle of it, the Corbin family has now split into the same good vs. bad, no-subtlety-in-the-telling camps that have added to the burlesque of Paula Jones's life.
Sister Lydia and mother Delmer stand behind Paula, as does her husband, Steve Jones, an airline ticket agent and aspiring actor. The symbiotic bond the family had forged has made estrangement all the more painful. Among them they kept in virtually constant contact over the phone. Or at least they used to.
Charlotte says her mother "won't talk about it because she feels that I have betrayed Paula." Lydia is not speaking to her.
Even Steve Jones says he's not all that comfortable with the way things have worked out. He insists that far from indulging his anti-Clinton views, he didn't want his wife to trumpet her accusations at a Washington news conference in February.
"We argued," he said in an interview with The Washington Post before the suit was filed. "I didn't want her to be pulled into a political thing. ... I didn't want her to get on that roller coaster."
And Paula despite Charlotte and Mark Brown's claim that she's gold-digging in the crassest way, feeding a new Los Angeles lifestyle that, they suspect, she hopes will end with her husband in the movies -- has so far been declining interviews. After spending hours talking to Post reporters in the spring, Paula Jones now, on the advice of her lawyer, is sticking to "no comment." Although fund-raising efforts are underway to pay for her case, Jones has said that any excess will be donated to charity.
For the moment, that leaves the Browns specifically Mark as the most unambiguously outspoken part of the family. And while his arguments may be couched in terms of love, when Mark Brown talks about this case there is no doubt about his aim.
"I can tell you things about Paula Corbin Jones that would probably destroy her marriage," Brown says.
Prodded, he won't reveal details, only hints that there are other instances of alleged harassment that she discussed but never pursued, and a history of financial interest in men.
Brown has never been shy about speaking his mind. Cabot Mayor Jay Smith says the former country music disc jockey and Marine Corps dropout is known around town for "blowing off" in restaurants.
"There was hardly a word you could print," Smith says of the city council meeting from which Brown was removed. "He just jumped up and spewed."
Currently on disability after surgery for an aneurysm, Brown says he makes no pretenses about being perfect.
"I am the rat that I know I am," he says in an interview, espousing a worldview in which all men are sinners, and all reporters are from New York.
Both he and Charlotte say they hope the family can bounce back from its "devastation," especially so their two young boys can visit their cousin Madison, Paula's 2-year-old son.
But they also make clear Mark most adamantly that they are offering no quarter. To resolve the impasse, they say Jones is going to have to drop the lawsuit.
"I love her very much," says Mark Brown. "I don't want bad things to come out. ... I don't want her to be squashed. ... But she has made one of the biggest mistakes of her life and put us in the middle of it."
"He's crazy," Jones said in an interview with The Post before the lawsuit was filed. "Whatever he says doesn't bother me a bit."
Sister Lydia, mirroring Mark's strategy, says that there is plenty more to tell about all the players involved but not now.
"One day," she says, "I'll want to say everything."
Staff writer Charles E. Shepard contributed to this article.
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company