Jones lawyers say they'll keep trying to settle Clinton suit President's attorney awaiting more details as court weighs appeal

October 21, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones vowed yesterday to continue to pursue an out-of-court settlement of her sexual misconduct case against President Clinton, and the president's attorney said he was waiting to hear further "to get all of this behind us."

Each side's legal team spoke out in St. Paul, Minn., after a federal appeals court there explored whether to revive Jones' now-dismissed case and send it back to a federal judge to examine the evidence anew.

All three judges on the panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals took an active role in a hearing on Jones' appeal but gave few hints about how they were leaning. Jones' lead attorney, Donovan Campbell, said afterward: "We don't think that anyone can predict how the 8th Circuit will rule, based on the questioning that was raised."

The three judges did show interest in the possible effect on Jones' case of the White House sex scandal surrounding Monica Lewinsky -- a development that gave Jones' side some encouragement.

The Jones lawyers are seeking to use the impeachment report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- and its allegations that Clinton lied and obstructed justice in the Jones case regarding his relationship with Lewinsky -- to bolster their argument that Jones is entitled to a trial of her $550,000 lawsuit.

Judge Susan Webber Wright barred all the Lewinsky evidence from the case before deciding to dismiss it in April. Wright concluded that Jones had not proved that she suffered legal harm from a crude sexual advance that she says Clinton made in 1991.

At yesterday's hearing, Circuit Judge C. Arlen Beam hinted that Wright might have to reconsider her ruling against the Lewinsky evidence if the appeals court decides to revive Jones' case.

"Things have changed since then," Beam said. That was a reference to the fact that Starr has completed his inquiry into the Lewinsky matter, and the evidence he gathered is now fully available. In her ruling in April, Wright said she was barring the Lewinsky evidence partly to avoid disrupting Starr's inquiry.

The hearing brought the unusual spectacle of a federal court, together with three lawyers, exploring in graphic detail the sexual misconduct complaint that led Jones to sue, based on a hotel room incident she says happened when Clinton was Arkansas governor and she was a low-paid state employee.

At no point in yesterday's hearing could Clinton's attorney Amy Sabrin repeat the president's denials. For the purpose of the hearing, the judges and lawyers were required to assume that all of Jones' allegations are true. The only issue at this stage is a legal one, not a factual one: Did Jones have a case worth pursuing at a trial?

The appeals court is expected to take at least several weeks to decide the case. The presiding judge, Pasco Bowman, noted at the end of the hearing, "It's not an easy case."

He and the other judges spent some time exploring how serious a sexual advance had to be to amount to unconstitutional sexual harassment by a public official.

Even though the court has now heard the case and will begin to frame a decision, the lawsuit could still be scuttled altogether if the two sides agree to settle it. That would result in Jones' withdrawal of her appeal.

It appeared yesterday that each side would assess their prospects in the wake of yesterday's hearing and then decide what might be gained or lost by waiting for a ruling, or reaching a settlement before the judges reach a decision. It appeared that settlement talks would go on, perhaps with new intensity.

Clinton's lead private attorney, Robert S. Bennett, for the first time publicly confirmed to reporters after the hearing all the key details of the settlement discussions that have yet to produce an agreement. The last offer he had, Bennett said, was "a package deal" in which the president would pay $1 million and a New York real estate tycoon, Abe Hirschfeld, would put up $1 million of his own money.

The president's attorney said he had told Jones' lawyers Monday that "that was unacceptable to us; we would not go into any package deal." Tying Clinton's potential payment to money from someone else, he said, meant that the Jones offer "had strings attached to it."

But Bennett did not close the door, either. He said he had been told that a Jones attorney, James A. Fisher, would "be getting back to me with a new offer." That had not been done yet, he added.

"The president will put his feelings aside about the case and resolve it if we can do it with honor," Bennett said.

Jones' attorney Campbell was less specific in describing the discussions. But he did say that "I would expect that some settlement discussions will be ongoing. Our office expects to be in touch with Mr. Bennett over the next several days and maybe continuously thereafter."

Pub Date: 10/21/98

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