Wag This!

Last Week's Contempt Finding Could Be Trust Buster for Clinton

 Washington— Though none of the president's men (and this includes you, Madeleine) had, by last week's end, apparently even entertained the notion of reparations for the survivors of what the Commander in Chief coolly characterized as the "regrettable" but also "inevitable" bombing of the very Kosovar civilian refugees NATO is ostensibly there to protect, some in Democratic political circles nonetheless were fretting about money. Not money to pay for war, mind you, but money to pay Bill and Hillary's legal bills.

If the first couple's partisans are to be believed, before last Monday— when Judge Susan Webber Wright slapped Clinton with a contempt citation, ordering him to pay what could amount to $1 million in court expenses for lying under oath in the Paula Jones case— the Clintons already were looking at about $10 million in legal bills for matters ranging from Whitewater to Paula Jones to impeachment. According to the latest report from the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, $4.5 million has been raised, softening those blows. Included in Judge Wright's citation is the order that Clinton pay "any reasonable expenses" borne by Jones, which covers her legal fees (though not her nose job).

Though undeniably embarrassing to Clinton, it evidently didn't rise to the level of Wag the Dog action— but, then, a war was already on. And according to informed sources, the president's legal team is inclined not to launch a characteristic courtroom crusade against the ruling— even though it may thus end up costing more— because, while harsh, it is seen as essentially a hard slap on the wrist. Even so, Anthony Essaye, the Washington lawyer who heads the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, frets for his president. "It just goes on and on and on," he sighs. "I'm not even sure if the trust will cover these expenses. We only cover the payments we think are in the four corners of the trust— basically the wording is to pay the personal legal fees of the president and first lady, and it's really a question of how you interpret that."

Robert De Niro, one of the cool commander's most generous fans, contemplates evasive action in 1997's top "dog" flick.
Phil Caruso/ New Line Cinema
Robert De Niro, one of the cool commander's most generous fans, contemplates evasive action in 1997's top "dog" flick.

The most interesting matter of semantics, however, is likely to revolve around Wright's language ordering that Clinton pay Jones's legal expenses stemming from the president's January 17, 1998, deposition. "What we're talking about would be costs directly associated with his fib," says Frank J. Donatelli, a veteran Republican Washington lawyer and lobbyist. "I would assume that would mean any costs in connection with preparing for that deposition. But remember, Jones brought in a different legal team after the deposition. The second batch of lawyers who tried the case could get a lot of that money, but the first batch . . . I don't think they could get in on this for more than a couple thousand dollars."

Another longtime Washington attorney— declining to give his name, pleading weariness with "the whole damn mess"— echoes Donatelli's assessment, saying the first round in this latest of Clinton's legal travails is likely to be between Jones's initial attorneys and her subsequent counsel from Donovan Campbell, the Dallas firm. "It would not surprise me if Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata subscribe to a very, dare I say, liberal definition of efforts in preparing for the deposition and try to submit all of their bills from as far back as they possibly can," the litigator said. But if Donovan Campbell feels its fees are being unduly encroached upon by Jones's original lawyers and a disagreement becomes contentious, it might be a while before it becomes clear just how much Clinton owes.

Of course, both Clintons still don't know what the final fare on the brief meter is going to be. Although Independent Inquisitor Kenneth Starr shot his impeachment wad last year, he can keep his office running for another two years, and though he has exhausted the constitutional mechanism for political removal of the president, he can still file criminal charges after Clinton leaves office. Hillary, too, might not be in the clear. While it seems unlikely at this point, Starr associate Hickman Ewing's recent testimony in the Susan McDougal case that he drafted an indictment against the first lady has caused some in Washington to wonder if Mrs. Clinton has seen her last day in court.

So far, according to Essaye, of the $4.5 million raised— drawing on donations as diverse as $1 from pensioners to $5000 from the likes of Robert De Niro— $588,000 has gone to cover trust expenses, leaving a little under $4 million for the hired guns. Since more than half of expenses cover direct mail for fundraising, the Clinton legal trust would seem to be a remarkable success. But $4 million is a long way from $10 million, and absent the drama of impeachment— which moved tens of thousands of people to contribute— the growth of the fund is by no means assured.

"It used to be said that in cases like this, the client, in the end, wouldn't have to pay the full tab, because high-profile clients like this give you publicity or bring you acclaim," says Essaye. "That doesn't wash so much these days. I belong to a large firm comparable to [presidential lawyer David Kendall's] Williams & Connolly, and I assure you, there aren't a lot of free rides anymore. There's lots of pressure to ensure that financial obligations are met."

Here, too, Clinton could have a problem, since, having been cited for contempt, he faces possible disbarment, which could imperil his earning potential when he leaves office. (It's hard to be a law firm's high-priced rainmaker, like Clinton pal Vernon Jordan, without, well, being a lawyer.) Few, however, doubt Clinton's moneymaking potential after he leaves office. One scenario has him relying on the tender mercies of Hollywood friends; though after the seaminess of impeachment, it's unclear whether, say, DreamWorks SKG would want to add a "C" to its moniker. Moneymaking aside, Donatelli says he expects an amicable arrangement eventually will be hammered out between the Clintons and their lawyers.

"I would expect they'll continue to carry the bill after he leaves office, they'll get jobs, their lawyers will see what the salaries and signing bonuses are and set about negotiating the final fee," he says. "The firms would try to capture as much as possible, they'd plead poverty, and they'd all arrive at some understanding. At some point, you run beyond what the client is capable of paying, so you settle for a certain amount on the dollar."

Which leads to a novel interpretation of Hillary's flirtations with a New York Senate bid. Donatelli, although he doesn't believe it to be a motivating factor, points out that if Hillary does run, she might get a better deal on her legal bills. "The fact that she would run for public office would probably lower her ability to pay," he says, "and I don't think, under those circumstances, they'd file a lien against her."

Research: Ginger Adams Otis

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