Clinton 'Adamantly' Denies Jones Allegations
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4 1997; Page A01
In his first formal response to allegations of sexual harassment, President Clinton yesterday "adamantly" denied propositioning Paula Corbin Jones in a Little Rock hotel room and asked a federal judge to dismiss the case or go ahead and schedule a trial he has tried to avoid for three years.
Clinton rebutted Jones's account in a point-by-point legal document in which he said he does not remember meeting her while attending an economic conference in 1991 when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. Clinton's court filing further argued that Jones failed to prove she had been defamed, denied her civil rights or intentionally subjected to emotional distress as she charged.
"At no time did the president make sexual advances toward the plaintiff, or otherwise act improperly in her presence," the Clinton document said. "At no time did the president conspire to or sexually harass the plaintiff."
The submission of about 85 pages of motions and documents was the first formal action in the case since the Supreme Court in May unanimously rejected Clinton's bid to postpone the suit until he leaves office in 2001.
The filing essentially adheres to the version of events Clinton and his aides have provided publicly in the past, but it marked the first time the president has put that in writing in a legal forum. Through a series of court maneuvers, Clinton had avoided a direct response to Jones's allegations since she sued in May 1994.
As some of his allies have done through the media, Clinton painted Jones as an opportunist seeking book or movie deals who went public with her story "to derive economic benefit and simultaneously to harm the president politically." Clinton added that she "suffered no damages" at his hand because he never hindered her career security or advancement in her job as a low-level state clerk.
Although he disputes her allegations, one document argued that had he done what she said he did, it still would not violate the law. "Even if they are accepted as true for purposes of this motion, [Jones] herself has alleged nothing more than private conduct a single overture, abandoned as soon as she stated it was unwelcome," the motion said.
Jones has claimed that while working the reception desk at the state conference on May 8, 1991, she was summoned to meet with Clinton by one of his bodyguards and escorted into a hotel room. Once there, she said, the then-governor engaged in some flattery, pulled down his pants and asked her to perform a sex act on him. She said she refused and fled the room distraught about the encounter.
The tactics of yesterday's legal filings amounted to a striking reversal in strategy by the Clinton legal team. After years of seeking one delay after another, his lawyers are now trying to speed the process to get the case behind him. Even with the high court ruling, Clinton could have continued to put off a formal answer to Jones's charges pending other motions, yet his attorneys not only volunteered it, they turned it in on the first day allowable under court rules.
"The bottom line is we're going to move quickly," Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett, who is leading the president's defense, said yesterday before the papers were filed. "It's a very strong pleading and hits the issue very strongly."
The documents were not delivered to U.S. District Court in Little Rock until minutes before the clerk's office closed for a three-day holiday weekend and Bennett's office would not provide copies, guaranteeing minimal public attention.
Clinton aides insisted the timing was not deliberate, saying they were not sure until late yesterday whether the documents would be accepted at this time because the case has not formally been returned to the district court.
Either way, the move blind-sided Jones's lawyers, who had expected Clinton to continue with stalling tactics. Attorney Joseph Cammarata said he had not seen yesterday's filing but added that he welcomed an accelerated timetable. "That's fine with me," he said. "Let's go."
The change in tactics came about because of the changing priorities in the White House. Other than getting the case dismissed outright, the overriding goal for the Clinton team in his first term had been pushing off a trial or embarrassing depositions until after the 1996 election for fear it would produce collateral political damage.
But with the vote now behind them and the clock ticking on the Clinton presidency, his closest confidants have come to view the Jones case as a race against history the longer it drags out, they believe, the more it will taint his legacy.
"Part one was the election. Part two is his place in history," said one adviser who asked not to be named. Clinton's strategists "don't want him to have this over his head for the next few years."
The White House has taken an aggressive tack with Jones from the beginning, when Clinton surrogates derided her as "trailer trash." Their hardball approach continued after its defeat at the high court decision, when Bennett briefly threatened to delve into her past sex life. Jones has said all she wants is an apology, though she also asked for $700,000 that she has pledged to donate to charity.
Among the papers filed yesterday was a motion asking U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to throw out the case. But the Clinton team does not expect that to happen, so Bennett also asked her to set a trial date and to schedule a status conference to determine the scope of the legal fact-finding process, known as discovery.
Among other things, Bennett wants to persuade Wright to rule that neither Clinton's nor Jones's past sex life is relevant. The Jones camp has threatened to introduce testimony by state troopers who served as Clinton's bodyguards and allege that they routinely approached women on his behalf, much as she claims happened with her at the Excelsior Hotel. Under criticism, Bennett withdrew his threat to explore her sex life, though he has said her reputation may be important if she claims to have been sexually innocent.
Cammarata said he opposes ruling Clinton's past out of bounds. "Clearly hers is not relevant, but his is relevant," he said. "If he has done it in the past, used troopers for personal purposes such as procuring women for him, then it makes it more likely than not that he did it in this case."
Clinton's lawyers suggested limiting discovery to certain documents, interrogatories and depositions until Wright rules on the request for dismissal.
The Jones team last month informally sent Clinton its first questionnaire, a list of six questions to be posed to the president including: "Were you alone with [Jones] in a room at the Excelsior Hotel in Arkansas on May 8, 1991?" and "State whether you have ever requested that [Jones] engage in or perform any sexual act(s) with or on you . . . "
Jones's lawyers have also prepared a series of subpoenas to be sent out as early as next week seeking records from the Arkansas governor's office, state police and the Excelsior Hotel. Bennett said he also has drafted requests for information and documents that will be sent to Jones.
As both sides prepare for the next stage, talk of an out-of-court settlement for the moment has vanished. The two camps have not spoken since meeting in a television studio the weekend after the Supreme Court decision.
"I frankly don't think there's going to be a settlement," said James Carville, the political consultant who advises the Clinton White House occasionally. "Everybody [should] get ready, get used to it we're going to have a lawsuit here."
"If people were reasonable," added another person close to Clinton who did not want to be named, "there could be a settlement. Right now, people aren't being reasonable."
The two sides have talked sporadically in the past, most recently just before the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. They came close to settling in May 1994 just before the suit was filed, when they exchanged drafts of a statement Clinton would read.
Under that proposal, the president would say he did not recall meeting Jones but add that "I do not challenge her claim that we met there and I may very well have met her in the past. She did not engage in any improper or sexual conduct." He would commit that neither he nor his aides would comment further about her.
The settlement, though, fell apart mainly over a dispute over a demand by Jones's lawyers for a "tolling agreement" that effectively would allow her to file her suit six months later if the White House or its allies did not adhere to the no-comment provision. Jones's lawyers said they needed that to make sure Clinton kept his bargain; the president's advisers considered that an outrageous license for her to resume her case at the slightest provocation.
Special correspondent Anne Farris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company