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Kiss But Don't Tell

In 700 pages of documents, lawyers for Paula Jones accuse Clinton of a campaign to cover up his sexual liaisons. It's more poundage than proof, but Ken Starr is sure to be intrigued

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine March 23, 1998

(TIME, March 23) -- In cases of alleged sexual harassment--so painful, so private, so often unknowable--Americans have grown accustomed to weighing the word of one defendant against that of one plaintiff, the steadfast denial against the angry accusation: he said, she said. But last week, in the matter of Jones v. Clinton, the accusers avalanched on the accused. Once, twice, three times now, a woman has sworn under oath that she had one or more sexual encounters with Bill Clinton and then got pressured to cover it up; each time the President has denied the charge. In each case someone is lying and someone is not. He said, they said.

Amid the allegations and denials swirling around the President--and there were almost too many to count in the 700 pages of documents and depositions that lawyers for Paula Corbin Jones filed last Friday--there was one assertion both sides could agree on. "I have done everything I could," the President told Jones' lawyers in his Jan. 17 deposition, "to avoid the kind of questions you are asking me here today."

The issue is what "everything" includes. As Clinton tells it, he has been beyond reproach: "In my lifetime," he testified, "I've never sexually harassed a woman...I never have, and I wouldn't." Because he has been the subject of so many lies--"the far right tried to convince the American people that I had committed murder, run drugs, slept in my mother's bed with four prostitutes," he said--Clinton developed what he calls "a high level of paranoia." So high, in fact, that he instructs his staff to put up no window treatments in the Oval Office or his private study, "no curtains or blinds that can close the windows in my private dining room." When asked whether he had used his power as Governor to suppress damaging stories about his personal conduct, the President replied, "I took action to try to prevent erroneous rumors from becoming public news."

But when the women do the talking, the "everything" Clinton and his aides did to avoid a sexual interrogation takes on a more ominous cast. By using the testimony of people close to Clinton during his days as Governor--women who claim to have slept with him and state troopers who claim to have shadowed him everywhere--the Jones team tried to demonstrate a historic pattern of inducement and intimidation: rewards for women who cooperated sexually and then kept it quiet; punishments for those who said no or talked about it later. The Jones documents allege that Clinton's longtime allies--aide Bruce Lindsey, former aide Betsey Wright, old friend Skip Rutherford and former security chief Buddy Young--used sweet persuasion, ugly threats or the promise of state and federal jobs to squelch what Wright has famously called "bimbo eruptions."

The alleged pattern is meant to buttress Jones' claim that after she refused Clinton's sexual advances at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel in 1991, her career with the state of Arkansas was roadblocked. But the filing may do even more to help explain the leads independent counsel Kenneth Starr is pursuing as he tries to build a broader obstruction case against Clinton in the matter of Monica Lewinsky. For a scandal-weary public trying to make sense of it all, the Clinton depicted in these documents is a chilling character indeed: not the charming rogue of Primary Colors, but a clumsy and compulsive sexual operator who gropes women like Kathleen Willey when they come to him in distress, who feels free to use women as playthings and then deploys a taxpayer-funded machine to keep them quiet. Last Sunday on 60 Minutes Willey was expected to describe her encounter with Clinton in gut-wrenching detail; it could prove more damaging to the President than anything in the Jones documents.

Her filing is an accomplished hatchet job but also, harassment-law experts say, a flawed legal document, with assertions not backed up by sworn statements and allegations that will never make it into the Jones trial. Many of its revelations have been alleged or leaked before, and it contains no single blockbuster charge that will alter the outcome of the scandal. The President's lawyer Robert Bennett calls it "a pack of lies." It would be comforting to believe the matter is really that simple.

But nothing here is simple or comforting. Take the testimony of Dolly Kyle Browning, a Texas real estate lawyer who has known Clinton since childhood and claims to have had an on-again, off-again sexual relationship with him from the mid-1970s until 1992. In January of that year, while Clinton was weathering the Gennifer Flowers storm, Browning says she got her first taste of intimidation from the candidate's camp. When the Star tabloid was preparing an article on her relationship with Clinton and called her for comment, Browning said in a declaration released by the Jones team, she informed Clinton's secretary and asked her to have him call. Instead, Browning alleged, she got a call from her brother, who was working in Clinton's campaign. He told her that "Billy was afraid to talk to me" because he thought she might record the conversation, as Flowers had. "He said, 'We think you should deny the story... If you cooperate with the media, we will destroy you.'"

In 1994, Browning saw Clinton again at their high school reunion in Hot Springs. "I reminded him that he had threatened to destroy me, and he said he was sorry." Then, she claimed, he offered a carrot to go with that stick. "He asked me to come to Washington. He said, 'You can live on the Hill. I can find you a job.'" Clinton offered a sharply different account in his deposition, denying there was a relationship and saying that at the reunion Browning threatened to publish a "fantasy" roman a clef about Clinton, simply because she needed the money.

At one point in his deposition it is hard to tell whether Clinton is making one of his paper-thin distinctions or having trouble keeping his stories straight. When he denied having a sexual relationship with Browning, he said she "was mad at me because I'd never been her lover, especially since she thought I was now Gennifer Flowers' lover, and...I told her Gennifer Flowers' story was bogus--it's very hard to prove your innocence in a case like this, but that we'd done it." Just four pages on, however, Clinton admitted his relationship with Flowers hadn't been so innocent. Asked if he had ever had sexual relations with Flowers, Clinton replied, "Yes... Once."

For the Jones team Flowers gives an account of how Clinton relied on both deception and government power to cover up his affairs. In 1991 the Governor helped the cabaret singer get a state administrative job. That prompted a rival job seeker to file a grievance with the state, claiming she was more qualified but lost out because of Flowers' affair with the Governor. Called to testify at a state review-board hearing, Flowers phoned Clinton for advice, according to her statement to Jones' lawyers. Clinton told her that if she was asked under oath about sexual relations with him to "deny that we had ever had an affair."

Flowers said Clinton told her that she should tell the board she had read about the job in the newspapers. In fact, Flowers said, she had asked Clinton for help, and he smoothed her path. The Governor, she said, told her to call one of his assistants, who helped her with her application and sent her to another official for a successful job interview. Flowers said Clinton told her that his appointee, Don Barnes, who headed the review board, would be "very protective of me and take care of any problems that may arise" during the grievance hearing. When the hearing turned to the issue of her relationship with Clinton, she said, Barnes "stopped the questioning."

In depositions sworn out by former troopers--whose credibility has been assailed since they first told their stories to the American Spectator in 1993--a common thread is the role played by Buddy Young, who ran Clinton's security operation in Arkansas and who was appointed to a plum federal post after Clinton became President. Larry Patterson, who had worked for Young, said Young once admitted to an unusual job description, saying that one of his tasks was to "keep a lid on some of these women. I believe the term Buddy used was 'to keep the other shoe from falling.'" When contacted by TIME, Young denied making the comment. As reporters began to explore the story of Clinton's affairs, Young allegedly tried to keep a lid on his former subordinates too. Patterson said Young called him four times in the early 1990s and warned him to keep quiet, saying at one point, "Larry, if you know what's best for you and your family, keep your mouth shut." Another trooper, Roger Perry, swears to a similar story. Young says he "never threatened them."

As the troopers describe Clinton's scandal-suppression operation, threats were not the only means used to ensure silence. Perry testified that trooper Danny Ferguson told him that after Clinton entered the White House, the President called him to express concern that the troopers might talk and said, "Tell Roger [Perry] he can have anything he wants" in the way of federal jobs. Wright, Clinton's chief of staff in Arkansas, also acted as an informal employment counselor, Jones' lawyers allege. According to Trooper L.D. Brown's deposition, a Wright assistant approached him at a Little Rock tavern in 1992 and said, "L.D., what is it you want? You're not going to say anything about Bill and women, are you? Is it a job? Is it a job that you want?"

Brown said he didn't grab at the job. And when he passed up that carrot, he said, he got the stick. Just before he agreed to go on the record for the American Spectator, Brown was asked to speak to Skip Rutherford, a Clinton friend in Little Rock. He claimed that Rutherford said, "Well, L.D., you know you have to go to sleep at night, lay your head down on the pillow and live with yourself, and you don't want your credit- card receipts all over the front page, do you?" Rutherford told TIME that he "educated" Brown on the perils of media attention but never pressured him. Later, Brown met with Wright, who said it "would be so bad if you talk" and offered to get him a new state job, according to Brown's deposition. Wright, now a Washington lobbyist, could not be reached. Clinton denies a role in all this. "I might have asked somebody to ask L.D. Brown not to lie," he said in his deposition, "but that would be a fruitless request."

It took six years, but the Clinton scandals have finally achieved a certain awful symmetry. With her scheduled appearance on 60 Minutes last Sunday, Kathleen Willey chose a forum that could damage Clinton's presidency as surely as Bill's and Hillary's 1992 appearance on the show helped him win it. On television and in her sworn deposition, the former Clinton volunteer says she went to the President for help in 1993, with her world crumbling around her: her husband, accused of embezzling more than $250,000, would commit suicide that very day. Willey needed a job, but Clinton, she says, had more than Christian charity on his mind. In a passageway just outside the Oval Office, he hugged her, Willey testified, "and the hug just continued longer than I expected," then segued into kissing and groping against her will. Clinton, she said, moved her hand to his genitals, trying to force her to fondle him. When she broke away, "I recall him saying that he had wanted to do that for a long time." Clinton said in his deposition that he "embraced" her, "but there was nothing sexual about it."

Willey's account is damaging not only for what it claims about the President, but also for who is claiming it. Willey, 51, has a dignified manner that the President's other accusers have often lacked. She has not allied herself with the right-wing Clinton haters or boasted about her encounter. Quiet and self-possessed, according to those who had seen a pre-broadcast tape of the show last week, she made a compelling witness, telling her story carefully, with frequent pauses for thought, in long, unedited passages of riveting television.

As compelling and seamless as Willey's 60 Minutes performance may have been, her tale is by no means free of contradiction or conundrum. Starr's investigators have heard conflicting testimony about her state of mind after the Clinton encounter. According to Linda Tripp, who claims to have encountered Willey after she left the Oval Office that day, she seemed "flustered" but "happy." When Newsweek's Michael Isikoff was pursuing her story last year, Willey put him in touch with a friend, Julie Steele, who first said Willey had confided in her the night of the encounter, then recanted and said Willey had asked her to lie to support Willey's account. Through her lawyer, Steele told TIME that she didn't learn of Willey's meeting with Clinton until weeks after the fact and that Willey didn't describe it as sexual or upsetting. Willey resisted being deposed in the Jones case for almost six months, and then was so halting and reluctant in her testimony that lawyers had to coax the story from her. So what made her decide to open up for the CBS cameras?

The answer isn't yet clear, but people who know Willey have told TIME that her calm demeanor masks a surprising volatility. She can be a difficult friend, they say, because one never knows when she may decide to end the friendship over some perceived slight. She is described as smart, funny and attractive, but also unpredictable. In an amended deposition, she testified that longtime Democratic activist Nathan Landow had discussed her story with her. Landow, who has raised some $600,000 for Clinton and Al Gore over the years, told TIME that "in no way did I ever attempt to persuade or influence Ms. Willey to lie in her testimony or to avoid testifying. She was distraught and in pain. She told me she did not want to testify. My only comment to her about that was that she should do what she felt was best for her."

As Lewinsky's reliability as a witness became more suspect with every different account of her story, Starr apparently became increasingly interested in Willey. Last Tuesday, the day Willey appeared before Starr's grand jury in Washington, two FBI agents appeared at Steele's front door in woodsy Midlothian, Va., a suburb of Richmond. Starr's agents didn't appear to be interested in quizzing Steele about Willey's credibility. Instead, sources familiar with the interview tell TIME, they spent much of three hours putting Steele on the defensive. Though they did inquire whether Willey had ever asked her to lie for her before, they showed little interest when Steele described two instances in which Willey asked her to do just that in connection with Willey's romantic liaisons. Willey's lawyer refused to comment.

For all the dust and innuendo kicked up by the Jones filing, it had an important technical purpose: to get the case in front of an Arkansas jury. The Jones team's problem, it would seem, is that all the obstruction and suppression in the world won't help it if it fails to prove that Jones suffered from her alleged encounter with Clinton. Her lawyers argue they don't have to prove Jones suffered tangible damages to prevail--they could conceivably persuade a jury that Clinton created an environment in which women were rewarded for kissing and not telling, and that Jones suffered for not playing along. And they might have to make such an argument because the claim that Jones suffered psychological and economic harm from her encounter with Clinton remains the weakest part of her case.

Those claims are bolstered only slightly by the filing, which includes a psychological evaluation performed last month, seven years after the encounter, that found the hotel incident and "ensuing events" inflicted great mental damage on Jones. The "ensuing events"--national TV, insults, publication of nude photographs of Jones--may have been more painful than her 20-min. encounter with Clinton, but the President can't be held liable for them. Though much of her case rests on the employment repercussions Jones says she suffered for refusing Clinton--failing to receive promotions and raises, a demotion while on maternity leave--she was unfamiliar with her own employment record at her deposition. And that record doesn't support her claim. She received, according to Bennett's statement of her job history, every merit and cost of living raise she was eligible for, and left her state job of her own volition. She was reassigned after a maternity leave but to a similar data-entry job at the same rate of pay. Jones' team has not effectively disputed this. She alleges on-the-job insults--not getting flowers on Secretary's Day, being moved to a desk closer to her boss--but the slights "don't rise to the level of an adverse action under the law," says Lynne Bernabei, a respected employment-rights litigator in Washington. "The guy may have acted boorishly, but that's not sexual harassment. The law is not there to control behavior, it's there to protect people in their jobs."

Even if a jury finds that Jones suffered adverse job consequences, "she's got a big hole in her case," says Bernabei. "She still has not shown any connection between what happened to her [on the job] and Clinton." Nowhere in the record do any people in Jones' office say they knew of her encounter with Clinton or did anything to her because Clinton or an agent of his told them to. Jones' lawyers concede as much in the filing, which concludes only that "a jury could reasonably draw the inference that Mr. Clinton caused Plaintiff to suffer adverse employment action." In fact, that would not be an inference. It would be a guess.

Whatever damage the filing may have done to Clinton's position in the Jones case, it is even harder to gauge its impact on Starr's criminal probe. It is by no means clear that suppression of gossip can be the foundation of a federal obstruction-of-justice case. The alleged sexual encounters may have been crude and boorish, but they are not criminal; if Clinton pressured paramours not to talk, it might be revealing, but it carries no criminal liability as long as he wasn't tampering with a case. Starr's best hope is to try to prove that Clinton or his friends sought to silence women after they had been subpoenaed to testify in the Jones suit--or used troopers or other government agents to keep their mouths shut.

In short, even if Starr could prove that Clinton fondled women, sought to obtain their silence through favors or intimidation and then lied about it, the prosecutor would still have difficulty lining up the chain of proof required in a criminal case. As a lawyer working on the case put it last week, Clinton "may have had sex with Monica, and he may have helped her with a job, but he can say it was never in an effort to silence her in the Jones case." That leaves Starr with an unpleasant choice: forwarding to Congress what looks like a circumstantial case of obstruction of justice, or testing the widespread assumption that lying about sex is not an impeachable offense. Which would leave Clinton where he started: facing a scandal-battered but still supportive public and confronting whatever it is inside him that triggered this mess in the first place.

In a room at a Dallas-Fort Worth airport hotel in May 1987, Clinton's old friend Dolly Kyle Browning said, she spoke with Clinton about what she considered to be her own problem with sexual addiction. Browning believed Clinton to be a fellow sufferer and wanted to share with him what she'd learned from a support group. As she ticked off a list of symptoms, she said, Clinton was "flippant" at first. He became "visibly upset" when Browning asked him--five years before his first presidential race--this question: "Have your sexual activities jeopardized your life goals?" Clinton started crying, she recalls. "He brought up incidents. He asked me questions." He described, she said, being faced with "temptation on every corner--How do you expect me to pass it up? ... I can't even walk down the street without someone literally trying to pick me up." Browning suggested they stop the discussion. "I can take it if you can," said Clinton.

The President now says he does not believe the conversation ever took place.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 23, 1998

Are Bigger Banks Badder?
Kiss But Don't Tell
Two Women, Two Stories And A Presidential Denial
Touched By A President?
The Ubiquitous Mr. Fix-It
The Expanding Cast
A Call for Lustiness
Sex And The Law
No Go: Why the Army Lost A High-Profile Sex Case
Is Slate Worth Paying For?
When Wall Street Runs Welfare
Calvin Trillin: Titanic (Glub), Lewinsky (Blab)
The Notebook: 'Garbage In, Garbage Out'

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