Clinton's contempt citation not a surprise to many
April 13, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 13) -- Two months after he was acquitted by the Senate, President Bill Clinton received news Monday that U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright was holding him in contempt of court for his "willful failure" to testify truthfully in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
But while his aides are trying to downplay the resurfacing of the sex-and-perjury scandal that led to the president's impeachment, not many people involved in the impeachment process were surprised by the judge's actions.
Word of Judge Wright's civil contempt charge reached the White House Monday night minutes before the president met with the bipartisan congressional leadership on Kosovo.
The White House avoided any public comment. And the president's private attorney, Bob Bennett, issued a terse statement: "I will have no comment until I have had the opportunity of reviewing this matter fully."
The judge's order revives Clinton's evasive answers during his January 17, 1998 testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. That, of course, led to the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of his presidency.
Yet, the timing of the decision is awkward. It comes as the president is deeply involved in the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. Clinton's advisers hope the decision won't interfere with that issue given the stakes involved.
But the ruling could lead to the Arkansas Supreme Court taking away the president's legal license. And the president faces a potential financial penalty -- though it would be modest compared to the $850,000 he's already given Paula Jones to settle her lawsuit.
Still, the president's current and former aides are trying to minimize the significance of the judge's action.
"It strikes me that she went way beyond what she needed to and I question really the constitutionality of a federal judge trying to impose a sanction on a president of the United States," former White House Special Counsel Lanny Davis wonders.
The president's critics see the ruling as affirmation of the impeachment process.
"This is the first time a president of the United States of America has been held in contempt of court by a federal judge. That is a devastating indictment of this president and there's no way that he can spin that into some badge of honor as he has tried to do with the impeachment," Rep. Bob Barr (R-Georgia), one of the 13 House managers during the Senate impeachment trial, said Monday.
Another House manager Asa Hutchinson (R-Arkansas) agreed, saying the Wright's ruling "doesn't surprise me." Hutchinson termed the punitive part of the order "a significant matter for anyone who values his license to practice law. I have to underline that 'willful' part of her ruling."
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and lead House manager, said the ruling "offsets the disappointing results in the McDougal trial," referring to the combined jury acquittal and court-ordered mistrial Monday of Whitewater figure Susan McDougal.
McDougal had been charged with criminal contempt and obstruction of justice in regards to her refusal to testify before Independent Counsel Ken Starr's Whitewater grand jury. McDougal claims she refused to testify because Starr wanted her to lied about the president and first lady.
But even some Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts who staunchly defended the president in the House Judiciary Committee, weren't surprised by the judge's actions.
"It was not a surprise," said Frank. "There was a pretty good consensus he lied in the deposition."
A spokeswoman for Jones, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, said Monday the Jones team was thrilled with the ruling.
"We're thrilled. While we did not agree with the judge's decision to dismiss the case, we applaud the fact that she found Clinton blatantly lied under oath," Carpenter-McMillan said. "We always said he lied. Now the very judge who sat in the room confirmed that. And it's history. A president has never been slapped with a contempt citation."
John Whitehead, a member of Jones' legal team and part of the conservative Rutherford Institute, agreed the ruling was "a vindication" for his client.
Wright ordered Clinton to pay Jones "any reasonable expenses including attorneys' fees caused by his willful failure to obey this court's discovery orders," directing Jones' lawyers to submit an accounting of their expenses and fees within 20 days.
She also ruled Clinton must reimburse to the court $1,202 for the judge's travel expenses. Wright traveled to Washington at Clinton's request to preside over what she now calls "his tainted deposition."
Clinton has 30 days to request a hearing or file a notice of appeal of Wright's ruling. But Whitehead warned if Clinton appeals, the judge could hold a full-blown hearing with witnesses, adding both to Clinton's legal expenses and his public humiliation.
If the president's legal team does not respond, the court will enter an order setting out the time and manner by which Clinton must comply with the sanctions.
Wright first raised the possibility of contempt in a footnote to her September 1 decision to release a transcript of Clinton's testimony in the Jones case, but said she wanted to wait to address the issue until after the president's impeachment trial.
In her ruling Monday Wright said: "Simply put, the president's deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false."
However, Clinton has steadfastly maintained that the statements he made in the Jones deposition were "legally accurate."
Jones filed her lawsuit in 1994, alleging Clinton, when he was governor of Arkansas, made a crude advance in a room at a Little Rock hotel in 1991, and her career suffered because she rejected his overtures. She was a state worker at the time.
Wright dismissed the lawsuit April 1, 1998 but Jones appealed the decision. The appeal was pending when she and Clinton reached a settlement November 13, 1998. Jones' lawsuit brought to light the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky and set in motion a criminal investigation that resulted in the House vote to impeach Clinton.
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