Judge in Jones case may cite Clinton for contempt
February 17, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, February 16) -- The judge who presided over the Paula Jones sexual harassment case said Tuesday she is considering citing President Bill Clinton for contempt for his testimony about his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- if she stays on the case.
U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright informed lawyers on both sides that she is still mulling contempt of court sanctions against the president for his testimony, even though the two sides have since reached an out-of-court settlement.
Wright originally expressed concerns about the president's deposition, in which he denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky, after he admitted in August that he had had an inappropriate relationship with the former White House intern.
She said Tuesday that she had waited to address the issue because of the impeachment trial and the fact that Jones' case was pending before an appeals court.
"Accordingly, I believe that now it is time for the court to address the contempt issue," she said in an order issued after a status conference with lawyers.
Wright also said that she would step aside from the case, if asked, because she had been contacted by a House prosecutor about being a potential witness in Clinton's impeachment trial. She gave the lawyers until Friday to respond and said she would hold a hearing then on the recusal issue.
The White House referred all requests for comment to Clinton's private lawyer in the case, Robert Bennett. Bennett did not immediately return a call to his office seeking comment.
Jones' spokeswoman, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, said she had not talked with Jones, but added that Clinton should be held for contempt.
"My God, he lied," she said. "If he can get away with not being held for contempt, I suppose we could all lie."
Wright raised the possibility of contempt in a footnote to her decision on September 1 to release a transcript of Clinton's testimony in a deposition in the Jones sexual harassment case.
At the time, Wright said she had "concerns about the nature of the president's January 17, 1998, deposition" but "makes no findings at this time regarding whether the president may be in contempt."
In the deposition, Clinton said: "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky." He acknowledged August 17 before a federal grand jury -- and again in a nationally televised address -- that he had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.
However, he has said that the statements he made in the Jones deposition were "legally accurate."
Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group in Washington, filed a formal petition with Wright months ago seeking a court hearing on whether Clinton was in contempt of court because of what the private organization called his "apparently false testimony." The foundation said "the court has the right, if not the duty, to defend itself against obstructive acts committed in its presence."
Contempt of court citations can result in hefty fines or even jail time. Wright gave no indication of what the result of the citation against Clinton might be or when a ruling could be expected.
In saying she would be willing to step down, Wright disclosed Tuesday she had had contact with Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) and her law clerk provided an affidavit for possible use in the impeachment case.
She said Hutchinson wanted her testimony about Clinton's demeanor during his deposition testimony, including where his attention was directed.
Clinton testified to the grand jury that he might not have been paying attention when his lawyer told the judge about Lewinsky's affidavit and said there was no sex of any kind with Clinton.
Hutchinson said that an affidavit by Wright would assert that Clinton was looking at Bennett when Bennett told the judge that there "is no sex" between Lewinsky and the president -- based on the Lewinsky affidavit.
Wright said she was not willing to be a witness in the impeachment proceeding and suggested that other people could provide the same evidence. Her law clerk, Barry Ward, later provided an affidavit about Clinton's deposition.
A spokesman for Hutchinson's office confirmed Tuesday that the congressman contacted the judge before the witness list was firmed up and that her response was lukewarm.
The judge said she didn't think the issue of contact with Hutchinson was sufficient for her to step aside. If she were to withdraw, the contempt matter would be decided by another judge.
Jones filed her lawsuit in 1994. Wright dismissed the lawsuit April 1, but Jones appealed the decision. The appeal was pending when she and Clinton reached a settlement November 13 that would pay Jones more than $800,000.
Jones' lawsuit brought to light the president's affair with Lewinsky and set in motion a criminal investigation that resulted in the House vote to impeach Clinton.
Jones alleged that Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, made a crude advance in a room at a Little Rock hotel in 1991, and that her career suffered because she rejected his overtures. She was a state worker at the time.
Clinton denies her accusation.
Wright's order emerged from a hearing on Tuesday on rival claims to the settlement Jones received by several legal teams who had represented her at different times.
Wright ordered the check deposited with the court within eight days for safekeeping pending a decision on how the money should be divided.
CNN's Bob Franken and Dana Bash contributed to this report.
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