April 13, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Phil Ponce has more.
PHIL PONCE: And for that, we're now joined by Washington Post reporter Roberto Suro, who is in the Post's news room. Roberto, the judge said that the President gave intentionally false testimony. Remind us what testimony she was referring to.
ROBERTO SURO: She referred specifically to Clinton's assertions that he was never alone with Monica Lewinsky during his deposition in the Jones lawsuit in January of 1998 and also to his statement that he had no sexual relations with her in that same deposition. She cited -- the judge cited later testimony in which he contradicted those statements.
PHIL PONCE: And, Roberto, describe the nature of the language she used in her order.
ROBERTO SURO: The judge's 32-page order really uses some fairly harsh language, talking about intentionally false statements, that he was willfully evasive and misleading, that he knowingly defied the court order, which had required him to testify about his relations with Miss Lewinsky, and so it's quite harsh on him in terms of her findings about his conduct.
PHIL PONCE: And, Roberto, just point of information, remind us what a contempt order is. What does it mean when you're held in contempt?
ROBERTO SURO: Basically it means you've violated a judge's order. It's a judge's way of maintaining their authority in a judicial proceeding. It basically means you've crossed a judge.
PHIL PONCE: And in this case it was a civil contempt, a finding of civil contempt as opposed to criminal contempt. What's the difference?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, criminal contempt has much weightier implications and involves obviously much more severe punishment, the creation of a criminal record. And the two penalties are applied in different situations.
PHIL PONCE: And what flows from the penalties that were imposed in this civil contempt order? He's got what, pay reasonable attorneys fees. He's got to reimburse the judge for her expenses of coming to Washington. What else could conceivably happen?
ROBERTO SURO: The only other penalty mentioned in the order is that the judge said she will refer this entire matter to the judicial authorities in Arkansas who supervise the work of attorneys. And so conceivably President Clinton, who is a lawyer, might face disbarment or other disciplinary action in his position as an attorney licensed to practice in Arkansas.
PHIL PONCE: Roberto, this is the first time that a sitting president has ever been hit with this kind of a sanction. The judge talked about that?
ROBERTO SURO: She mentioned, in fact, that this is the first time that a sitting president has been sanctioned and cites her reasons for doing so.
PHIL PONCE: And what is the authority -- I mean wasn't there a question at some point whether a federal judge or any judge, could impose a sanction on a sitting president? The authority for that is?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, the President himself challenged the entire Paula Jones lawsuit in a case that went to the Supreme Court -- Jones V. Clinton -- and it -- the Supreme Court found that a president could be subjected to a civil lawsuit while in office. The judge said that her authority flowed from that decision. Given that she had the ability to conduct the lawsuit, any judge, therefore, has the authority to maintain the integrity any of the judicial proceeding they are supervising.
PHIL PONCE: Now, Roberto, she talked about how this finding would not have influenced her dismissal of the case because she wound up dismissing the Paula Jones case in any event. What did she say about that?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, indeed she dismissed the case and she said that even if the President had testified truthfully about the Lewinsky matter, that wouldn't have affected her finding that there was no basis for the Jones lawsuit to proceed.
PHIL PONCE: And Roberto, again remind us of what the White House is saying about this.
ROBERTO SURO: At this point the White House is saying very little other than the matter is being reviewed by the President's personal attorneys.
PHIL PONCE: Reviewed because there is a possibility, a legal possibility the President could appeal, yes?
ROBERTO SURO: That's right. He could appeal the whole order or he could appeal the sanctions that were imposed. He could challenge the judge's authority. The judge, in a very interesting kind of warning, put the President on notice that if he was to challenge any part of the order, she would open up the entire Jones lawsuit to an evidentiary hearing, call witnesses and review the President's entire conduct in this matter. So challenging Judge Wright on this would risk reopening the whole Lewinsky affair once more.
PHIL PONCE: And that could conceivably calling in who, Monica Lewinsky, if the President did that?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, conceivably. The judge simply says that that so far the President has been spared the turmoil of live witnesses, but that if he challenges this order, he will not be spared that or the inconveniences of time and expense and distraction from his other work -- if he challenges this order.
PHIL PONCE: So presumably that's a huge impediment to the President -- in theory that's a big impediment to the President appealing this order?
ROBERTO SURO: Well certainly you would imagine his lawyers will have to judge whether it's worth taking the risk and what is to be gained by it given that legal authorities that I've spoken to basically have characterized the sanctions as fairly light, despite the harsh language in the order. The actual penalties he is paying are not very substantial.
PHIL PONCE: And Roberto, what impact will this finding -- could it have on Ken Starr's ability to file a criminal action against the President, a criminal indictment against the President, any connection?
ROBERTO SURO: No legal connection. I mean there is no direct link. Certainly is it will provide further ammunition to those who say let's let it rest. It's over. It's done with the President, the whole matter has been adjudicated now. But there is no legal impediment. And, in fact, Judge Wright went to some lengths at points in the decision to say she didn't want to interfere with the criminal investigation that is still open.
PHIL PONCE: Roberto Suro, thank you very much.
ROBERTO SURO: Thank you.