Clinton, Starr, Jones: a complex legal tangle

January 31, 1998

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and his lawyers are dealing with two significant legal challenges -- both aimed at him personally. One is a criminal investigation by Whitewater independent prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. The other is a sexual misconduct lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Corbin Jones.

Each has continued for about three years, and until lately they were totally independent. Now, they seem closely linked and this week actually overlapped. The Sun's legal reporter Lyle Denniston assesses the implications.

How did the cases come together?

In December, Clinton's lawyers were informed that former White House aide Monica Lewinsky would be a witness in the Jones case. On Jan. 13, Starr's office had Linda Tripp, Lewinsky's one-time friend, secretly tape her in a hotel bar. Starr used that taped evidence to get permission to expand his investigation into new allegations against the president of perjury, obstruction of justice and encouraging perjury.

What is the president alleged to have done?

He is alleged to have lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. When he was questioned by Jones' lawyers on Jan. 17, he is reported to have denied such a relationship. If he did lie in that deposition, it might be perjury.

Where can I read the president's deposition?

You can't. There have been numerous leaks about what he said, but the deposition is sealed by court order in the Jones case. It has also been turned over to Starr, and that means it is covered by grand jury secrecy.

Why was the president asked in the Jones case about Lewinsky?

Jones' lawyers are trying to show that Clinton has a pattern of improper sexual relations with women who are not his wife. If that could be proved, it would bolster Jones' case against the president.

Has the Supreme Court become involved?

Yes. Last May, it ruled that the president did not have legal immunity to Jones' civil lawsuit, so the case could go forward.

Did the justices know that the case would become a wide-ranging inquiry into the president's personal life?

Probably not. The president's lawyer, Robert Bennett, warned about the possible distractions, but the court discounted those. It said it would trust the trial judge in Arkansas to oversee the pretrial questioning in the case so as to show "high respect" for the presidency.

Was the court right in anticipating little impact on Clinton?

As it turns out, no. The president's lawyer says that "all of the dire consequences that we predicted have come to pass."

What has happened in the Jones case since Starr widened his probe?

As word about the details of Starr's inquiry leaked out, Jones' lawyers began issuing subpoenas to round up the same witnesses Starr was pursuing.

Clinton's lawyer linked the two cases in asking the trial judge in the Jones case to speed up the trial to stop the leaks about Lewinsky and get the Jones case resolved.

Starr for the first time stepped into the Jones case directly. He asked the judge, Susan Webber Wright, to stop all pretrial questioning in the case. He said Jones' lawyers have been trying to "shadow" his criminal investigation.

Judge Wright ruled on Starr's complaint on Thursday. What did her ruling do?

She barred "any evidence concerning Ms. Lewinsky" and any more questions that "concern Lewinsky."

What does that mean for Clinton?

The part of the president's Jan. 17 sworn testimony answering any questions about Lewinsky has to be edited out, and cannot be used in the Jones case. A Jan. 7 sworn affidavit by Lewinsky, denying there was a sexual relationship with Clinton, also cannot be used in any way. Lewinsky cannot be called as a witness.

What does it mean for Paula Jones?

The judge's rulings that the allegations involving Lewinsky and Clinton cannot be used in the Jones case may lessen, but not FTC decisively, Jones' chances of proving a pattern of sexual misconduct.

Can Jones' lawyers appeal?

Yes, they plan to. However, higher courts seldom second-guess trial judges' decisions on the scope of evidence allowed.

Does her decision mean that the Jones case cannot include any evidence about Clinton and other women?

No. Judge Wright explicitly said she was not barring anything but the Lewinsky evidence.

Does her ruling prevent Starr from investigating Clinton for perjury?

Almost certainly not. To prove perjury, Starr must show that Clinton lied intentionally on a matter closely related to the issues in the Jones case.

But couldn't the president's lawyers argue that his testimony about Lewinsky is not closely enough related to the case, since the judge has ruled it is "not essential"?

They could try. And it would be up to a different judge, if Clinton is charged with perjury, to decide whether Starr could use the deposition against him as evidence. Any decision on that question would depend on whether Clinton's testimony was closely related to issues in the Jones case at the time he gave the deposition. And at the time Clinton testified, the judge had not yet ruled out testimony about Lewinsky in the Jones case.

Does the Wright ruling bar other possible criminal charges against Clinton?

No. Starr is known to be considering possible charges of encouraging someone else, presumably Lewinsky, to commit perjury and obstructing a legal proceeding. Clinton was not likely to have been asked in the Jones case about anything dealing with those charges.

Has the judge done anything more to limit Jones' lawyers?

Yes. Yesterday she said they could not question Secret Service agents about observing the president's behavior.

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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