Danforth says Thomas denied harassment charge White House calls report 'unfounded'

October 07, 1991|By Neil A. Lewis | Neil A. Lewis,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Two days before the Senate is scheduled to vote on his nomination to the Supreme Court, Judge Clarence Thomas was publicly accused yesterday of sexually harassing a law professor at the University of Oklahoma Law Center during the two years that she served as his personal assistant in the federal government.

Anita F. Hill, a tenured professor of law at Oklahoma, charged in an affidavit submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that when she worked for Mr. Thomas over a two-year period beginning in 1981, he frequently asked her out and when she refused he spoke to her in detail about pornographic films he had seen.

The allegation added an element of uncertainty to what had already been a turbulent confirmation process for Judge Thomas, who is President Bush's choice to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court.

Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican who is the 43-year-old nominee's principal supporter in the Senate, said yesterday that Judge Thomas "forcefully denies" the allegations.

Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that because of the allegations, the vote should be delayed. But Senate aides said they expected the vote to go forward because a delay would require the consent of all 100 members. At least 54 senators have declared their intention to vote to confirm Judge Thomas.

Nonetheless, as word of the allegations spread this weekend, theWhite House and Judge Thomas' supporters mounted a swift counterattack on several fronts, depicting him as the victim of a desperate final gambit by his opponents.

Professor Hill never filed a formal complaint against Judge Thomas. National Public Radio reported yesterday that Professor Hill had first made her accusation to the Judiciary Committee the week of Sept. 10, while members of the panel were questioning Judge Thomas in public hearings.

In an interview broadcast yesterday morning on NPR, Ms. Hill said she initially decided she would not tell the committee of her charges but changed her mind as the hearings were about to begin because she felt she had an obligation to tell what she believed to be true.

"Here is a person who is in charge of protecting rights of women and other groups in the workplace and he is using his position of power for personal gain for one thing," she said. "And he did it in a very ugly and intimidating way."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement yesterday that when Ms. Hill first contacted the committee, on Sept. 12, she insisted that her name not be used and that Judge Thomas not be told of her allegations. He said this effectively tied the committee's hands.

Only on Sept. 23, Mr. Biden said, did she agree to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the allegations. The White House yesterday described the FBI report as finding the allegations as "without foundation." But congressional officials who have seen the report challenged that characterization, saying the bureau could not draw any conclusion because of the "he said, she said" nature of the allegation and denial.

By all accounts, the White House and the Senate Democratic leadership, including Mr. Biden and Sen. George J. Mitchell, the majority leader, were briefed about the accusation shortly after the FBI completed its investigation.

At the time cited by Ms. Hill, Mr. Thomas headed the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education and she was his personal assistant.

In her affidavit, congressional officials said, Ms. Hill said that typically after a brief discussion of work, Mr. Thomas would "turn the conversations to discussions about his sexual interests." She described his remarks as vivid as he discussed sexual acts he had seen in pornographic films.

Professor Hill did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment yesterday. In a written statement to news organizations yesterday, she said that she was first approached by the Judiciary Committee Sept. 3 and was invited to provide background information on Judge Thomas because she had worked with him. She said that after "numerous discussions" with the committee's staff she decided to submit an affidavit.

She said she discussed the matter publicly with the NPR reporter, Nina Totenberg, only because the reporter had a copy of the affidavit and she wanted to be able to respond to the information before it was made public.

Ms. Hill's neighbors on tree-lined Berry Road in Norman, Okla., and her colleagues at the Oklahoma Law Center say she is a person to be believed, Newsday reported.

"I don't know Judge Thomas, but I do know Anita Hill, and she is definitely not somebody to make charges without reason or to do so lightly," said Dewey Selmon, the former Tampa Bay pro football player who is a neighbor of Ms. Hill.

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