WASHINGTON — The federal judge who found President Clinton in contempt of court last April levied a penalty of $90,686 against him Thursday, making him the first chief executive ever assessed such a payment.
Repeating her condemnation of Clinton for lying under oath in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright said that she was imposing the sanction to cover some of Jones' legal expenses and "to deter others who might consider emulating the president's misconduct."
Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's private attorney, said that he would not challenge the ruling. "We accept the judgment of the court and will comply with it."
In a 19-page ruling, Wright, a Little Rock, Ark., judge, made clear that she had calculated the penalty to cover expenses incurred by Jones' lawyers as a result of the president's false denials that he had ever been alone or had sex with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
Legal experts viewed the ruling as fair to the president, especially considering the judge's strong language last spring in excoriating Clinton for "false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process."
"Sanctions are not imposed to punish," the judge said Thursday, "but must be based upon evidence of actual loss."
Nonetheless, Wright's final determination in the civil case that led to last year's Lewinsky scandal--and to the president's impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate, which acquitted him, threatens further legal trouble for Clinton.
The now-complete federal court record could aid independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr should he decide to pursue criminal prosecution of Clinton before or after he leaves the White House.
Besides adding to the taint on Clinton's legacy, Wright's findings also could dim his prospects if, as expected, he chooses to practice law after leaving office.
The contempt matter arose from Clinton's deposition taken Jan. 17, 1998, when he was asked if he and Lewinsky had ever been alone together in the Oval Office.
"I don't recall," he replied. "It's possible that she . . . while she was working there, brought something to me and that, at the time she brought it to me, she was the only person there. That's possible."
He denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky or ever being alone with her in a hallway outside the Oval Office. In his grand jury testimony on Aug. 17, 1998, Clinton asserted that he had not lied in the Jones deposition. That evening, however, in a nationally televised speech, he acknowledged that he had "inappropriate intimate contact" with Lewinsky. White House lawyers later said that the contacts had occurred in the hallway outside the Oval Office.
The judge's unchallenged contempt ruling already was being reviewed by the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct.
This panel, which includes two non-lawyer citizens, could revoke or suspend Clinton's license to practice law. Clinton is a licensed attorney in Arkansas--but no other state--and is a former law professor.
Wright, in figuring Clinton's monetary penalty, disregarded as "excessive" a demand by Jones' lawyers in Texas and Virginia for a court-imposed payment of nearly $500,000--more than five times the amount she selected.
Noting that Clinton made an out-of-court payment of $850,000 to Jones and her lawyers in November to settle the case, Wright said that "it is appropriate to limit fees and expenses to those incurred" through extra legal work that resulted from his contempt-of-court conduct when he lied in his January 1998 deposition.
She awarded $79,999 to the Dallas law firm of Rader, Campbell, Fisher & Pike, and $9,485 to the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, a conservative public interest law firm that also assisted Jones. The judge added $1,202 to cover expenses for her trip to Washington to attend Clinton's deposition.
"The court takes no pleasure in imposing contempt sanctions against this nation's president and, no doubt like many others, grows weary of this matter," the judge wrote.
"Nevertheless, the court has determined that the president deliberately violated this court's discovery orders, thereby undermining the integrity of the judicial system, and that sanctions must be imposed to redress the president's misconduct and to deter others who might consider emulating the president's misconduct."
Clinton's lawyers denied misconduct by their client but avoided challenging Wright's findings. To do so would have occasioned further open court hearings, which the White House wishes to avoid.
The Dallas law firm had no immediate comment.
John Whitehead, director of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va., said he was pleased that the judge imposed the penalty, although he wished it were larger.
"The key thing is how history will view this," Whitehead told the Associated Press. "They're not going to look at the money but at the first sitting president that was ever held in contempt."
Clinton is not expected to use his privately financed legal defense trust fund to pay his penalty, largely to avoid public criticism and because the penalty is "relatively light," a source close to the president said. Last year's Jones case settlement was largely covered by private insurers without drawing on the defense fund.
Wright said in her contempt order that the president's deposition testimony was "intentionally false, notwithstanding tortured definitions and interpretations of the term 'sexual relations.' "