A fine as punishment for Clinton

September 25, 1998|By Bruce Gottlieb

SOME PEOPLE are looking for a way to punish President Clinton that's tougher than censure but not as tough as impeachment.

On ABC's "This Week," former Clintonite George Stephanopoulos proposed a fine -- Mr. Clinton should reimburse the government for the cost of the Monica Lewinsky portion of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation (the part for which his dissembling was responsible).

Is this suggestion serious?

Mr. Stephanopoulos certainly meant to be serious and subsequent newspaper articles treated his proposal respectfully.

A financial penalty might assuage outraged voters in a way that Mr. Clinton's many apologies have not.

There is precedent. In 1997, Congress fined House Speaker Newt Gingrich $300,000 as punishment for lying about ethics violations. Mr. Gingrich agreed to accept a loan from Bob Dole, who was by then employed by a Washington lobbying firm. Many pundits pronounced this deal a conflict of interest, even though Mr. Dole pledged not to lobby his well-connected debtor. Coincidentally, on Monday, Mr. Gingrich announced he doesn't need Mr. Dole's money since the latest Gingrich book is selling better than expected.

One problem with the fine idea is how Mr. Clinton could be expected to pay it -- on top of his lawyers' bills, etc. The fine Mr. Stephanopoulos proposes would be about $4 million. It's hard to think of any way the president, or even the ex-president, could raise that kind of money without controversy and objection from the very critics the fine is supposed to assuage.

In practice, a fine can only work as part of a plea bargain. Mr. Clinton must agree to it. If Congress attempted to impose a fine against his will, Mr. Clinton could call it a "bill of attainder." That is a law imposing punishment on an individual without trial, and it is prohibited by the Constitution. But Mr. Clinton is the only person with the legal standing to dispute a fine levied against Mr. Clinton. If he goes along, no one else can object.

Bruce Gottlieb writes The Explainer column for Slate magazine.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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