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McDougal, contempt decisions leave historic mark

Judge's ruling could further stain Clinton. Jury's verdict reinforces

By Peter Grier and James N. ThurmanStaff writers of The Christian / April 14, 1999



WASHINGTON

Neither independent counsel Kenneth Starr nor President Clinton got what they wanted from the long-running investigation of the Monica Lewinsky matter. Mr. Clinton had to face a Senate impeachment trial against his wishes. Mr. Starr's effort didn't result in a Senate conviction.

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Now the protagonists of the drama are getting a further rebuke. Two aftershocks of the case emanating from Arkansas this week are likely to reinforce the existing public images of Clinton and Starr for history.

Federal judge Susan Webber Wright's ruling that Clinton is in civil contempt for willful false testimony under oath gives official imprimatur to the "Slick Willie" tag the president's political foes have long hung on him. Meanwhile, the acquittal of Whitewater investigation figure Susan McDougal of obstruction of justice charges is a slap at Starr, whose alleged out-of-control tactics became a major factor in the trial.

If nothing else, these two events may also point out how quickly the impeachment struggle has faded from the nation's memory. The astringent facts of the war in the Balkans have intervened to perhaps put things in perspective.

"The whole process of impeachment seems like a hundred years ago," says Bert Rockman, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the upcoming book "The Clintons' Legacy."

'Misleading and evasive answers'

Judge Wright's ruling that the president lied under oath about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky in the sexual misconduct lawsuit filed by Paula Jones was not unexpected. Wright had revealed that she was considering the move in a footnote to a legal order last September.

Nor was it the stiffest penalty she could have levied. Legal experts say it was within her power to levy the more serious penalty of criminal contempt of court.

Still, her finding could have consequences for the president. For one thing, she has ordered him to pay court costs that could run into the tens of thousands of dollars - on top of the Clintons' already heavy legal bills. Also, she has referred the matter to an Arkansas professional conduct committee, which could order Clinton disbarred as a lawyer in the state.

Perhaps most important, Wright has now set down an official legal ruling for history that the president of the United States lied repeatedly under oath.

While such a judgment could be only a footnote to the whole impeachment mess, it could also be an indelible one.

"My first impression was: This is a moment of clarity. This should have happened a long time ago," says Joanne Ciulla, a professor of ethics and morality at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

The ruling also somewhat contradicts key assertions made at the Senate impeachment trial by both the prosecuting House managers and Clinton's lawyers.

Managers, for their part, often said that if the Senate acquitted Clinton it would send the message that he was above the law. If so, Wright did not get the message.

On the other side, Clinton's defense team often intimated that the whole process was just political vengeance. That might be hard to say now that a federal judge appointed to the bench by Clinton found otherwise.

"It seems about right," says Jon Bond, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station. "The president was secretive and that was wrong."

Mixed result for Starr

The federal trial of Ms. McDougal in Arkansas ended on April 12, the same day Wright issued her decision.

The jury's decision represented something of a mixed result for Starr's prosecutors. The jury acquitted McDougal of obstruction of justice for her longstanding refusal to cooperate with Starr's office. Jurors found that she really believed that Starr's office would only settle for information damaging to the president, whether that belief was true or not.

But the jury deadlocked on two counts of criminal contempt. The judge in the case declared a mistrial on those counts. Starr's office has the right to retry McDougal on this aspect of the case.

Whether prosecutors opt for such a second go-around may say much about their attitudes towards the endgame of their lengthy effort. Though an Arkansas jury could have been expected to be sympathetic to McDougal, a fellow Arkansan, her acquittal on the obstruction charge underscores how deep-seated the picture of Starr as a vengeful arm of the law has become.

"All this does is add to the prevailing view of the person," says Professor Rockman.