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Blumenthal Claims 'Privilege' in Suit

White House aide Sidney Blumenthal (AP file photo)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A34

White House aide Sidney Blumenthal has invoked the specter of executive privilege in refusing to answer numerous questions in the $30 million defamation suit he filed against Internet gossip columnist Matt Drudge.

In several days of a deposition that ended last week, Blumenthal's lawyers said he could not answer certain questions involving his White House duties because they may be covered by the privilege designed to protect confidential conversations between a president and his staff. It is unusual for such a privilege to be raised in a civil case, attorneys say.

Patrick Manshardt, an attorney for Drudge, called the executive privilege argument "absolutely frivolous" and "baseless" and said he plans to challenge it. "By claiming executive privilege, they prejudice Drudge's ability to defend himself in this civil proceeding," he said.

But Jo Marsh, an attorney for Blumenthal, said the questions put to her client "had absolutely nothing to do with the case. . . . It was a complete fishing expedition."

She added: "I don't have authority to invoke executive privilege. I can say that [a question] may or may not be covered by executive privilege." The final decision would be made by the White House counsel if Drudge's side presses the issue, Marsh said. A White House spokesman said such a referral was "standard practice" and that the counsel's office will examine the issue.

The White House invoked executive privilege on Blumenthal's behalf when he testified before a grand jury in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, but dropped the claim in June after a federal judge rejected it.

Blumenthal's defamation suit is politically charged because Drudge has been a thorn in the administration's side. Lewinsky has testified that President Clinton last year asked her about a "Sludge Report" dispatch that he had made an improper advance toward former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey.

Blumenthal sued Drudge last year after the gossip columnist reported false rumors that Blumenthal once beat his wife, Jacqueline. Drudge, who quickly retracted the story, contends the suit is a political effort, with Clinton's acquiescence, to silence him.

Marsh said executive privilege was raised when Drudge's attorneys asked Blumenthal such questions as "what did he say to the first lady about a vast right-wing conspiracy." After Blumenthal left early one day, he raised the privilege in refusing to say what White House duty he was tending to.

Marsh's partner, William McDaniel, said Blumenthal was also asked such far-reaching questions as whether he had read Karl Marx and what he knew about the sexual activities of Gary Hart and former president George Bush. "Seventy-five to 80 percent was not about the case," he said. "These people are on another agenda -- to find out information about Sidney, the White House, the president."

But Manshardt said the questions are relevant because "the guy's claiming his reputation was ruined by the Drudge Report. You ask, what kind of reputation did he have to begin with" and "who it was he slimed in the past." Blumenthal also denied spreading negative information about House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

"It's their lawsuit," Manshardt said. "We're defending ourselves." Judge Paul Friedman of U.S. District Court here has ordered the transcript sealed.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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