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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

A Trooper Shuts the Gate on Jones' Case

Officer's revision of the 'Paula' episode and writer's mea culpa weaken the accusations.

March 24, 1998|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@aol.com

The only witness who can independently confirm the truth of the initial charges in the Paula Jones case has now come down solidly on the side of President Clinton, according to his sworn deposition released last week. This tawdry escapade that has mushroomed into a grave presidential crisis began with criticisms of Clinton's behavior as governor, attributed to Arkansas State Trooper Danny Ferguson, who now points the finger at Jones.

According to Ferguson's deposition, Jones was no shrinking violet singled out by Clinton but instead had asked the trooper to facilitate a meeting with the governor in a hotel room where he was working, because she judged Clinton "good looking," with "sexy hair." When asked by his lawyer, "Would you say she was the instigator of that meeting?" Ferguson replied, "Yes, sir." He also stated, in the deposition last December, that Jones emerged happy from the room to which he escorted her and that Clinton told him, "She came up here and nothing happened."

Ferguson was the original source for the article by David Brock in the far right American Spectator magazine, which mentioned a liaison with a "Paula" and which was cited by Jones as the basis of her lawsuit against Clinton and Ferguson. The American Spectator's campaign to denigrate Clinton was financed by a $1.7-million grant from right-wing fat cat Richard Mellon Scaife. Brock now says that he was hired to destroy Clinton. In a startling mea culpa in the current issue of Esquire magazine, Brock tells Clinton, "I conspired to damage you and your presidency."

What Brock terms a conspiracy began when he was introduced to some disgruntled Arkansas troopers by a local lawyer, Cliff Jackson, who was one of Clinton's most bitter enemies. Jackson plugged into what Brock calls "the gothic world of anti-Clintonism," but he had also sought to broaden the scandal's reach by offering interviews with the troopers to the mainstream Los Angeles Times.

By dangling the bait of interviews with troopers willing to bad-mouth the man they were assigned to protect, Jackson was able to orchestrate a media assault that may yet unravel the Clinton presidency. Brock now admits that the original sources were woefully unreliable and writes that the troopers "were greedy and had slimy motives." He concludes, "I can't stand behind the story factually any more, and I'm sorry I wrote it."

Brock's remorse over what he now calls a journalistic "charade" has not been echoed by The Times, which back in 1993 published a lengthy "troopergate" article of its own based in part on the same dubious sources.

In a front page story last Saturday, Times reporter William C. Rempel, who along with Douglas Frantz, now of the New York Times, did much of the paper's original interviewing and who shared a byline on the "troopergate" story, challenged Ferguson's sworn statement. Rempel wrote that Ferguson's deposition "drastically altered key elements of his eyewitness accounts in a way that made them significantly more favorable to the president."

Rempel also writes that Ferguson told Times reporters back in 1993 that he had been approached by Clinton with federal job offers in an attempt to purchase his silence. But when asked in his December 1997 deposition, "Was there any discussion of jobs" in a phone conversation with the president, Ferguson replied, "No, sir."

In his sworn deposition, Ferguson claims that he was badgered by a Times reporter who, he said, "put words in my mouth." In his own deposition for the Jones case, Clinton said that Ferguson complained to him that he felt pressured to talk to the press and that "the L.A. Times reporter threatened him." Rempel strongly denies any threat.

This whole sordid case may hang on Ferguson's veracity. If his sworn testimony is believed, then the Paula Jones case collapses because according to him, she sought the encounter and afterward offered to be Clinton's "girlfriend." That is hardly the stuff of sexual harassment, unless it is Clinton who was harassed.

Sure, it's possible that Ferguson is a congenital liar. Why would we ever expect that the sort of people who spy on others' sex lives should prove in any way reliable? We inevitably empower scoundrels when we make it the public's business to pry into the sex lives of consenting adults, even those who hold office.

In his open letter to the president, Brock writes: "Surveying the wreckage my report has wrought four years later, I've asked myself over and over: What the hell was I doing investigating your private life in the first place?" A question for us all.

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