A payoff for Paula Jones? What can the White House have been thinking?

September 12, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Amid the latest twist in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case against President Clinton -- the pullout of her two top lawyers because of ''fundamental differences'' with her -- one intriguing factor continues to float in the ether, undenied by the White House or the president's lawyers.

That is the report that a settlement of $700,000 to Mr. Clinton's accuser was under consideration in talks between her lawyers and his. Robert S. Bennett, Mr. Clinton's top lawyer, has commented only that ''there is no settlement offer on the table,'' which dodges the question of whether there ever was.

A spokeswoman for Gilbert Davis, one of the two Jones lawyers who quit her case, says the attorney-client relationship prohibits him from either confirming or denying that the offer was made. But Ms. Jones' new ''press representative,'' Susan Carpenter-McMillan, has indicated that Mr. Davis and his legal colleague, Joseph Cammarata, had pushed Ms. Jones to settle for the $700,000 and a statement of regret from Mr. Clinton that her reputation had been sullied, but with no admission of guilt.

Clearly, the president and his lawyer would like to see this whole business put behind them rather than face a public trial and the discovery process it would entail, not to mention the predictably smothering attention by the news media that would result. But the notion that a payoff of any amount to avoid a trial, and certainly one of $700,000, would even be considered by Mr. Clinton and his lawyer seems either preposterous or imbecilic.

Any such payoff would certainly be construed by many if not most Americans as the admission of guilt that Mr. Clinton has steadfastly declined to make. He has denied absolutely that he tried to engage Ms. Jones in a sex act in a Little Rock hotel room when he was governor of Arkansas.

Among other things, a payoff might well encourage new allegations by opportunistic women, motivated by anything from monetary reward to national publicity or desire to do more political damage to him.

The argument that it would be better to pay Ms. Jones off than go through the ordeal of a trial while the president continued to serve in the Oval Office is totally senseless. Yet the White House has allowed the figure of $700,000 -- the amount she sought in her original suit more than three years ago -- to continue to be bandied about as if it may have been offered after all.

Beyond the embarrassment of it all, there are other compelling reasons for Mr. Clinton to want the Paula Jones case to go away. The dismissal by the judge in the case of a claim of defamation by Ms. Jones apparently has enabled one insurance company to declare an indemnity policy the president holds with it, which has been paying many of his legal bills, no longer applicable, and for a second insurance company to ponder the same move.

Mounting legal debts

Mr. Clinton already is up to his eyeballs in legal debts as a result of his defense against possible allegations in the marathon Whitewater case as well as the Jones charges. The legal-defense fund established to help him out falls far short of his needs. But presumably he will have plenty of opportunity and time to pay his bills after he leaves the White House. Former presidents don't go on welfare; numerous money-making schemes with no heavy lifting are thrown their way.

In any event, Ms. Jones has made it clear that above all that she wants Mr. Clinton humbled by a specific statement that would support her allegation that he had a state trooper bring her to his hotel room for the purposes of sexual hanky-panky.

You could say that Mr. Clinton, already elected to his second term, can't be hurt much in any event, because polls like the recent one by Pew Research Center found that only 16 percent of those surveyed had followed very closely the Supreme Court decision allowing the Jones case to go forward now. But if he's concerned about his place in the history books, as is reported so often, a public trial can still hurt him plenty.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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