Clinton gives little hint of reply to Arkansas ethics investigation

President must decide whether to fight charges or surrender law license

March 14, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton faces a deadline this week on how to handle a potentially embarrassing ethics investigation in Arkansas: begin a fight to keep his lawyer's license or give it up voluntarily?

The president has given no reliable sign of how he will respond to the state supreme court ethics committee's inquiry into his denial under oath that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

There are indications that he does not plan to surrender his license without a fight. Clinton paid his annual $100 license fee last month. He had faced a March 1 deadline to pay, so that is not necessarily a signal of his intention to fight.

But along with his own reputation for refusing to yield to critics, the fee payment might have been a sign that the president wants to retain what is, for him, the largely symbolic formality of being a licensed attorney. He paid the fee about two weeks after receiving formal notice of the charges against him.

Last month, in his only public comment on the ethics investigation, Clinton seemed to suggest an unwillingness to surrender.

Asked whether he would give up his law license, the president did not answer directly. Instead, he told reporters that he had settled the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against him "only after there was a court ruling that the case had absolutely no merit" -- in other words, after he had fought it.

Clinton faces two sets of charges. One set grows out of a federal judge's ruling that he committed contempt by intentionally lying under oath about a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. The judge sent her contempt ruling to the ethics committee.

The other charges involve a long list of ethical grievances by a Georgia attorney and professor, L. Lynn Hogue. He holds a law license in Arkansas and filed his charges in that capacity. Hogue is also legal counsel of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy group based in Atlanta.

Though the Hogue complaint has been pending before a state supreme court committee on lawyers' ethics since September 1998, the inquiry began only after the state's highest court ordered the committee to proceed in late January.

Penalties varied

This week, the president's initial reply to the charges is due, 30 days after he was formally notified that he was under investigation. If some or all of the charges are upheld, Clinton could face disbarment, suspension or some lesser form of punishment, such as a reprimand.

His options are to surrender his license voluntarily, ask for more time to decide what to do or reply formally to the charges, which would push the inquiry forward and raise its visibility over the next few weeks or months.

The White House declined to comment on the president's intentions. It referred inquiries to his personal lawyer, David E. Kendall, who said, "I regard this as a confidential matter, and we will have no comment."

Kendall, who was one of the president's leading legal defenders during last year's impeachment trial and the Lewinsky scandal, is known in legal circles for an unwillingness to yield even in high-stakes legal battles.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright found Clinton in contempt after concluding that he had testified falsely about Lewinsky in the Jones case.

The president did not contest that finding and paid the $90,686 penalty the judge assessed. Kendall was not his lawyer in that proceeding.

Clinton has not been in active law practice in Arkansas for years and is not expected to engage in professional use of his license after he has left the White House. But he has always regarded his legal background -- including his brief tenure as a law professor in Arkansas -- as a source of pride. He has been licensed to practice there since 1973.

Closely followed in Arkansas

The ethics inquiry into Clinton's testimony under oath is highly visible in Arkansas, where the president retains many political ties.

His relationships there have apparently complicated the work of the ethics committee. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last month that two members of the committee had disqualified themselves from any role in the Clinton inquiry, without publicly giving reasons.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation's president, Matthew J. Glavin, contended yesterday that because Clinton has known of the charges against him for 18 months, "he does not need to ask for more time to respond."

Though Clinton's response to the ethics committee initially will be confidential, it will be shared with Glavin's organization because Hogue, the complaining lawyer, is a leader of that group.

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