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Gennifer Flowers Case Is Reinstated

Appeals court rules that ex-President Clinton's former paramour may pursue libel and conspiracy allegations.

November 13, 2002|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Tuesday that Gennifer Flowers, former President Clinton's onetime paramour, may pursue a libel and conspiracy case against Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and two former top presidential aides, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

The 3-0 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling by U.S. District Judge Philip Pro of Las Vegas, who threw the case out two years ago, saying it had been filed too late and that some of the allegedly libelous statements were mere statements of opinion.

Tuesday's ruling brings back into the spotlight a tawdry controversy that the former president, his family and aides -- and perhaps the public -- would like to see disappear.

"The agony of the Clinton scandals for the country" will be extended because Flowers' attorneys will be able to take depositions, said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers.

Flowers, who now sings in a New Orleans bar, burst into the public spotlight during the 1992 presidential primaries when she told The Star, a tabloid specializing in celebrity scandals, that she had had a long-term affair with Clinton, then Arkansas governor.

Clinton and his wife denied the allegations on CBS' "60 Minutes." Flowers responded with a news conference in which she played recordings of intimate phone calls from Clinton that she had secretly taped.

Seven years later, while living in Nevada, Flowers sued. She contends that Hillary Clinton, now a Democratic senator from New York, and her two "henchmen," Carville and Stephanopoulos, conspired to protect Bill Clinton's presidential candidacy from Flowers' damaging statements.

Flowers claims that Carville, Clinton's campaign manager, and Stephanopoulos, a campaign aide and later a key White House advisor, defamed her and painted her in a false light by stating that she had lied to The Star about the affair and that she had "doctored" tapes of the phone calls. Flowers also asserted that Hillary Clinton was the mastermind of the alleged conspiracy and exposed private information about Flowers and organized break-ins at her residence.

The 9th Circuit affirmed Pro's dismissal of all of Flowers' claims based on Carville's 1994 memoir, "All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President," and the claim that Sen. Clinton allegedly disclosed private information and organized break-ins, saying all were barred by the statute of limitations.

The appeals court also threw out all the claims based on Stephanopoulos' 1999 book, "All Too Human: A Political Education," except a passage in which Stephanopoulos said Flowers had doctored the tapes.

But the appeals court reinstated the conspiracy claim and a claim Flowers lodged based on an interview Carville gave on "Larry King Live" in 1998. On that show, Carville said, "I think they found that tape was doctored and CNN [even] found ... like 19 or 20 different places."

In his book, Stephanopoulos said investigations by CNN and Los Angeles television station KCBS showed that the tape had been "selectively edited."

"Gennifer Flowers claims that defendants knew that she was telling the truth, knew the tapes weren't doctored, knew the news reports they claimed to rely on were wrong but accused her of being a liar and a fraud anyway," Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in Tuesday's decision.

"If Flowers' claims are true, her suit does not offend the 1st Amendment. She has produced no evidence yet to support them, but under our system of civil procedure she must be given at least some chance to seek it before her lawsuit is thrown out," added Kozinski, an appointee of President Reagan. Judges J. Clifford Wallace and Richard A. Paez, appointees, respectively, of presidents Nixon and Clinton, joined the opinion.

Kozinski emphasized that because Flowers is "a public figure," at least with respect to this controversy, she will have to show that Carville and Stephanopoulos acted with "actual malice" when they repeated statements made by other media about the tapes being edited or doctored. She would have to prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that the defendants knew the news reports were false or disregarded "obvious warning signs" that they were false.

"Flowers no doubt faces an uphill battle," Kozinski wrote.

Still, Flowers' lawyer, Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, a self-described Washington watchdog group that has sued both the Clinton and Bush administrations, said he was elated by the ruling.

"Viva Las Vegas," Klayman declared, referring to the site of the lawsuit. "Hilary Clinton and the other defendants will be deposed."

But the senator's attorney, David A. Kendall, expressed pleasure that the court dismissed several claims and maintained that "the remaining part of the case is just as frivolous as it always was."

A spokeswoman for Little Brown & Co., which published Stephanopoulos' book, said the company was comforted by Kozinski's comments about the high hurdle Flowers must clear to get to trial.

"We are confident that ... Flowers will not be able to prove to a court of law that the statement by Mr. Stephanopoulos was libelous," the spokeswoman said.

Carville's lawyer, William A. McDaniel Jr., called the decision "a substantial victory," and predicted that his client will prevail on the claim remaining against him.

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