Paula Jones Lawyers Ask to Quit CaseBy Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 1997; Page A01
The two lead attorneys representing Paula Corbin Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton backed out of the case yesterday, citing "fundamental differences" with their client after a proposed settlement reportedly collapsed.
In a dramatic public breakup, lawyers Gilbert K. Davis and Joseph Cammarata asked a federal judge for permission to withdraw as Jones's legal team after three years of crusading all the way to the Supreme Court on her behalf.
The motion filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock did not explain what led to the fracture, but it came after a weekend when bitter disagreements among her advisers spilled into public view. According to people close to the case, Jones rejected a possible $700,000 settlement presented to her by Davis and Cammarata because it did not include a full apology from the president for allegedly requesting sex from her in an Arkansas hotel room in 1991 when he was governor.
"Certain fundamental differences of opinion have arisen between [the lawyers], on the one hand, and [Jones], on the other hand, as to the future course of this litigation," Davis and Cammarata said in court papers. "These differences of opinion are so basic to the issues involved in this action, and to professional ethical obligations of [the lawyers], as to compel [us] to withdraw from representation."
However, they maintained the falling-out "has nothing to do with the legal merits of plaintiff's claims on which [we] continue to have full confidence."
The development threw the lawsuit into disarray and was welcomed by the president's camp as a sign of weakness in a case that has dogged Clinton and threatened to tarnish his legacy. With the departure of her top defenders, some Clinton advisers reasoned, Jones may be severely handicapped.
"If they thought there was a good chance they were going to win the case, I don't think they would have gotten out," said James Carville, a Clinton adviser who has pushed the White House to take a tough line in the case.
Yet it also indicates that Jones has determined to take a more unyielding approach, seriously diminishing any chances of settlement. Although the president and his attorneys say they are eager to take their side to trial next May, Clinton faces abundant political embarrassment if the suit gets that far.
Any rejoicing in the East Wing must also be tempered by other developments. One of the two insurance companies that has been financing his high-priced legal team has withdrawn from the case and the other appears likely to do the same. That would leave Clinton, who has few major assets, searching for a new way to pay for legal bills that have topped $1.5 million. The legal defense trust set up on his behalf has concentrated on expenses resulting from the Whitewater investigation and its fund-raising has been so poor that it has failed to cover even those bills.
Clinton is a victim of his success on this front. By persuading U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to dismiss Jones's defamation claim against him, Clinton removed the issue that was covered by the policy he held with State Farm Insurance Cos. State Farm spokeswoman Mary Boone said yesterday that the company is no longer paying for the president's defense and notified Clinton's attorneys after the Aug. 22 court decision. "This ends our duty to defend," she said.
The Chubb Group, the president's other insurer, has begun inquiries into whether it too should withdraw and could reach the same conclusion soon.
The split between Jones and her lawyers culminated months of disputes pitting Davis and Cammarata against their client's new friend and public relations consultant, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, an outspoken conservative activist who lives near Jones in California. The hostility between Cammarata and Carpenter-McMillan was barely disguised; he chafed at her frequent talk show appearances and comments about legal strategy, while she considered him abrasive and controlling.
"This is a nasty and highly personal dispute amongst Paula Jones, her attorneys and her public relations representative," said a statement issued by the office of Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's lead attorney.
If there was a battle for the heart and soul of Paula Jones, Carpenter-McMillan won it Friday.
Davis and Cammarata had told Jones she could walk away with a settlement of $700,000 the amount she asked for when she filed the suit in May 1994 plus a general statement of regret from Clinton that would not admit any impropriety but attest that she did not engage in any sexual misconduct either. The statement would have acknowledged that her character and reputation had been harmed and called that regrettable.
With Carpenter-McMillan urging her on, Jones decided that was not good enough. The proposed statement to be signed by the president was "vanilla language," in Carpenter-McMillan's words, "which can be spun any way they want." Jones insisted on a flat admission that the governor had directed a state trooper to bring her to a hotel suite during a state conference held there.
It remains unclear whether Clinton's side signed off on the settlement advocated by Davis and Cammarata. Bennett was in Australia and did not return calls. The statement by his office said "there is no settlement offer on the table" but did not deny that discussions had taken place.
With the dismissal of her defamation claim, Jones's remaining complaints are worth $525,000 if she wins, so Davis and Cammarata argued she should declare victory by accepting the original $700,000 even without an outright apology.
"They believe they did what they were hired to do and they won," said one person close to the case. "They feel that is the best offer they can bring to the table."
The dissension also centered around payment to the attorneys, who have accumulated an estimated $800,000 in hourly bills but have been paid less than $50,000 from a legal defense fund set up for Jones. In recent weeks, the lawyers agreed to change their payment arrangement to accept one-third of whatever Jones wins.
In their motion yesterday, Davis and Cammarata noted that court rules allow an attorney to quit a case in several circumstances, including if staying on "will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client." Judge Wright must decide whether they can withdraw after consulting Jones. In the last two weeks, Carpenter-McMillan's husband, personal injury attorney William Neal McMillan, has been interviewing lawyers.
Davis and Cammarata took over the case in 1994 after Jones's first lawyer brought them in. Davis and Cammarata dispelled initial doubts with a convincing 9 to 0 decision by the Supreme Court in May that Clinton could not postpone the case until after leaving office. Davis, in particular, had earned Bennett's respect.
But even as they basked in their victory, Jones was turning more to Carpenter-McMillan, a former antiabortion activist and television commentator who first met Jones through mutual acquaintances two years ago. Carpenter-McMillan and Jones speak nearly every day and go shopping together. In July, against the wishes of her lawyers, Jones anointed Carpenter-McMillan as her public spokeswoman.
Staff writer Lorraine Adams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company