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Appeals panel skeptical of Clinton wrongdoing allegations in Willey case

May 18, 2000
Web posted at: 4:03 p.m. EDT (2003 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Judges on a federal appeals panel Thursday expressed skepticism that President Bill Clinton deliberately and criminally violated federal privacy law when the White House released documents during an impeachment investigation.

The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch tried to defend a lower-court ruling, which said Clinton "had the requisite intent" for such a violation.

In that pretrial ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth allowed the group to pursue various paths to probe allegations the White House routinely compiled and disclosed information potentially damaging or embarrassing to its critics.

The group said the Clinton Administration illegally disclosed a prior arrest record for former White House staffer Linda Tripp, and private correspondence from Democratic Party operative Kathleen Willey.

Willey, in a March 1998 interview on the CBS television news program "60 Minutes," accused the president of groping her in a private room near the White House's Oval Office. In response, the White House released to the press a series of friendly letters written by Willey to the president after the alleged incident was said to have occurred.

In each case, Judicial Watch has said, the disclosed material was intended to undercut the credibility of allegations of wrongdoing against the president.

Justice Department attorney William Schultz asked the panel Thursday to set aside Lamberth's ruling, saying that in the 25 years since the enactment of the Privacy Act, administrations have consistently said it does not apply to the White House.

Judicial Watch head Larry Klayman, in his rebuttal, defended Lamberth's ruling, but was interrupted by Chief Judge Harry Edwards, who said "I don't think any White House, regardless of who is in it, would think Judge Lamberth is a guiding light" on privacy issues.

Schultz also faced challenges by the judges. First Edwards, then U.S. Appeals Court Judges Douglas Ginsburg and David Tatel questioned whether Schultz had adequate basis to ask them to intervene and consider tossing out the Lamberth ruling.

"You have to show some important privilege has been infringed," said Edwards. "What's the privilege here?" He added that even if "Lamberth sat on the bench and said the president is a crook ... you have to have a hook" to get the appeals court to consider stepping in.

After the hour-long hearing, Klayman emerged from the courthouse and expressed optimism Lamberth's ruling would not be tossed out. "It's important for this matter to proceed," Klayman said, and that the "court made its finding in the context of whether additional discovery is warranted."

Klayman predicted the appeals panel would act within two weeks.

 
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