Clinton would survive a lawsuit, experts say

May 05, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- In the beginning, there was Gennifer Flowers. Then, it was Troopergate. Now, comes Paula Corbin Jones.

A former Arkansas state employee, Ms. Jones intends to sue President Clinton today in federal court, accusing him of violating her civil rights by asking her to perform a sexual act when they were alone in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room in 1991, according to her lawyer, Daniel Traylor.

Legal experts say they doubt the case will go anywhere. And political observers say the accusations won't undermine Mr. Clinton, who has survived charges of marital infidelity before.

But some analysts say Ms. Jones' lawsuit may create a dilemma for women's groups.

"It puts all the interest groups involved in the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings in a very, very difficult position," said University of Cincinnati political science Professor Alfred Tuchfarber. "They will have to demonstrate partisan consistency or feminist consistency."

Ms. Jones' attorney, Mr. Traylor, said she would file a lawsuit seeking damages for "severe emotional distress" today in federal court in Little Rock.

According to a long, front-page article in yesterday's Washington Post, a state trooper serving on then-Gov. Clinton's security detail summoned Ms. Jones, then 24, to meet Mr. Clinton while she was working at a state-sponsored conference where he was speaking. Ms. Jones told the newspaper that once they were alone, Mr. Clinton tried to kiss her, reach under her clothing and asked her to perform a sexual act. She said she walked out immediately.

The White House has denied Ms. Jones' charges. Mr. Clinton this week hired high-powered Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett to defend against Ms. Jones' lawsuit. And Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to appear tonight on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"Womanizing is a low-grade toothache that simply always will be there with Bill Clinton as long as he is president," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "There's no great surprise here. It's not an impeachable offense. But it is distracting for him and the nation."

But Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said Ms. Jones' lawsuit elevates the charges.

"This involves sexual harassment, which is the crime de jour," Mr. Sabato said. "After Gennifer Flowers, it was not unreasonable for a citizen to believe they had problems in their marriage. But what is emerging in the public mind is another John F. Kennedy or a Gary Hart, someone who has a problem with sexual compulsion that goes well beyond the bounds of propriety."

During the 1992 election, Mr. Clinton overcame claims by lounge singer Ms. Flowers that he had a long affair with her. Then, in December, there were new assertions by several Arkansas state troopers that they helped then-Gov. Clinton arrange sexual encounters. The White House dismissed their charges as politically motivated.

Mr. Tuchfarber bets Republican female legislators will try to drum up a movement against Mr. Clinton, given the sentiment against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., and Frank Kelso, who was the chief of naval operations involved in the Tailhook scandal.

"They'll be asking, 'Now, we go after Clinton, right?' Their colleagues will stammer and say, 'Uh, uh.' It puts them in a horrible position."

But a spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women wasn't taking the bait yesterday.

". . . We were not born yesterday," she said. "We know that [Clinton enemies] Cliff Jackson and Floyd Brown are behind this and that they do not have the best interests of this woman in mind. Their agenda is not to fight sexual harassment but to bring down Mr. Clinton. We're not going to be a part of that."

Apart from the controversy, lawyers familiar with civil rights suits see severe -- and possibly insurmountable -- obstacles in Ms. Jones' anticipated lawsuit against the president.

"She will have problems in proving her charge," said Susan Crawford, a Palo Alto, Calif., lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases. "Her comments are devoid of any damages jTC she suffered. Nothing about being unable to work or seeing a therapist. And why did she wait this long?"

On the other hand, Ms. Crawford said, Mr. Clinton must confront "a classic case of trying to prove a negative. It's difficult to prove you didn't do something when there were only two people in the room."

Ms. Jones cannot complain directly of sexual harassment under civil rights law because the 180-day time limit for such a suit ran out in late 1991.

"Obviously, her lawyer is going to have to come up with a novel legal theory," said Irwin Venick, a Nashville, Tenn., lawyer who recently won a sexual harassment suit in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Harris vs. Forklift Systems Inc.

"She wasn't required to come to the hotel room, and she was not told that if she didn't come something bad would happen, like losing her job," Mr. Venick said. "She went to the hotel room voluntarily and left when she wanted to."

Arthur Spitzer, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Washington, said a 1989 Supreme Court decision bars Ms. Jones from suing a state official, such as Mr. Clinton.

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