Jones' lawyers foresee windfall from president

Contempt citation means Clinton to pay `hundreds of thousands,' one says

April 14, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Enmeshed in the Kosovo conflict and refusing to appear distracted, President Clinton found himself confronted by yet another legal challenge yesterday, as Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers began tabulating the money they will seek as payment for Clinton's contempt of court.

White House aides and Clinton allies insist that he will be forced to pay only nominal penalties to Jones to compensate her for "his willful failure" to tell her lawyers that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and had been alone with her.

In finding the president guilty Monday of civil contempt of court, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Arkansas ordered Clinton to pay Jones "any reasonable expenses" related "to this matter."

To White House lawyers, that would limit any expenses to the costs incurred by Jones' lawyers after the president's Jan. 17, 1998, deposition, when he denied having had sexual relations with Lewinsky. Because the discovery process in the Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit ended just two weeks later, the costs could not have mounted very high, they say.

Not surprisingly, Jones' large team of lawyers is interpreting Wright's order more broadly, suggesting costs could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.

John W. Whitehead, one of Jones' lawyers, said that at the very least Clinton would have to reimburse Jones for the hourly wages and expenses of seven lawyers who came to Washington for the deposition. Those costs would include airfare, billable wages, court reporters, Federal Express bills, even copying costs.

Wright's costs for attending the deposition reached $1,202, which Clinton must pay. That amount will be increased at least sevenfold, Jones' lawyers said.

But the Jones team believes the contempt citation goes much further, covering all expenses incurred preparing for the deposition, as well as the costs the lawyers incurred scrambling to refute Clinton's testimony. For Clinton detractors, that could be the ultimate punishment: forcing the president to finance part of what Hillary Rodham Clinton called the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that has doggedly pursued him.

Because the deposition centered on charges that Clinton had sexually propositioned other women, Whitehead suggested that all the expenses incurred by the Jones lawyers in trying to track down and interview the president's other accusers should be covered. Even the cost of interviewing former Lewinsky friend Linda R. Tripp just before the deposition should be paid by the president, the Jones team said.

"We'll have our billable hours," Whitehead said. "You're looking at mucho, mucho, mucho hours. You're looking into the hundreds of thousands in legal fees."

Joseph Cammarata, one of Jones' original lawyers, who left the case before the president gave his deposition, said he fully expects the Jones team to push the envelope as far as possible. Cammarata became embroiled in his own battle with Jones' current lawyers as they scrambled to stake their claims to Clinton's $850,000 out-of-court settlement in November.

Cammarata and his partner Gilbert Davis secured $350,000; the considerably larger second Jones team received $283,000. That smaller sum may be encouraging Jones' current lawyers to seek more.

"They probably would like to have gotten more than what we did," Davis said.

Wright has given Jones' lawyers until May 3 to produce a detailed statement of expenses and attorneys' fees. Clinton's allies hope that Jones' lawyers will overplay their hand, turning Wright against their claims.

"If they follow their previous pattern, they will be excessive and extreme and unreasonable and will get slapped down," predicted Lanny Davis, a former White House attorney and Clinton confidant.

Even Gilbert Davis, no ally of the president, questioned whether Jones' lawyers could ask to be compensated for the costs of activities they would have pursued, whether or not Clinton had been truthful in his deposition, such as searching for other women or talking to Tripp.

Clinton could appeal Wright's citation, and Lanny Davis insists the president has strong grounds to do so. The Constitution, he noted, explicitly prohibits one branch of the federal government from imposing on the powers of another. The Congress, through its power of impeachment, is the only constitutionally recognized government branch that can take action against the president.

"I don't see how a federal court enforces this order on the chief executive," Davis said, calling the citation "highly irregular."

That is not only a partisan opinion. Jesse H. Choper, a professor of constitutional law at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed that Wright's citation was at least subject to debate.

"There is certainly no universal agreement that the judiciary can hold the president of the United States in contempt, or at least force him to obey a contempt order," he said.

But few expect Clinton to appeal, largely because Wright signaled there would be severe consequences for contesting her order. An appeal, she wrote, would require her "to hold hearings and take evidence, including, if necessary, testimony of witnesses." Those witnesses could include Lewinsky.

"They may just want to wrap up and let it go away," Choper said.

The White House is eager to put Clinton's legal and sexual scandals behind him. The civil contempt citation against Clinton is another stain on the president's blemished legacy.

"In terms of his public stance, [the citation] just hammers home to people that he's not trustworthy, that he's an unreliable character," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. "It will embarrass him more in history."

Even if Wright had not opened the door to a combative battle over the penalty Clinton must pay, "the opinion itself would be a very negative blemish on the president's legacy," conceded Lanny Davis.

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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