- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

A federal judge yesterday said President Clinton violated former White House staffer Kathleen Willey's privacy rights when he released letters she had written in an effort to cast doubts on accusations he sexually assaulted her in the Oval Office.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, in a 26-page ruling, said Mr. Clinton "had the requisite intent for committing a criminal violation of the Privacy Act" and that he and his top White House aides knew they were subject to the act, "yet chose to violate its provisions."

Mr. Clinton immediately disputed the ruling and said he had released the letters only "reluctantly" to defend himself against the accusations.

A violation of the act is a misdemeanor under federal law, which calls for a fine of up to $5,000. The law also establishes a "private right of action," meaning Mr. Clinton or others could be sued in a civil case for damages for violating the act.

Judge Lamberth said former White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, former Deputy Counsel Cheryl Mills and Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey, one of Mr. Clinton's closest advisers, also may have violated the act. The three recommended to the president the letters be made public.

Judge Lamberth said the decision to release the letters came despite a ruling he made nine months earlier that the White House was subject to the provisions of the act. He said the president and the Executive Office of the President (EOP) were "fully aware of this court's ruling … and that disclosure of the letters was therefore prohibited under the Privacy Act."

"This court simply does not understand why the EOP and the president, without any judicial decision to support their position, determined that they were free to directly disregard this court's prior decision in the pending case," he said. "This court cannot accept or condone this unlawful action."

Mr. Clinton, at an afternoon press conference, said he did not agree with the ruling and said the White House would appeal it. He said he did not believe the Privacy Act applied to the Willey letters.

"Obviously, we don't agree with the ruling," he said. "And I can say that when the decision was made to release those letters, I didn't even have any conversation with anybody about the Privacy Act. I never thought about it, never thought about whether it applied or not."

Mr. Clinton said he made the decision to release the letters "reluctantly" and did so "because it was the only way I knew to refute allegations that were made against me that were untrue. And I think they plainly did that, and I would not have done it otherwise.

"I think that the opinion of our counsel's office and other judges who have ruled on this is that that act does not apply to this kind of correspondence in the White House. And so we disagree, and we'll proceed accordingly," he said.

White House Counsel Beth Nolan, in a statement, said that in 1975, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia then an assistant attorney general recognized that the Privacy Act did not not apply to the entire Executive Office of the President. She said the Justice Department also has "consistently adhered to the view" that the office is not subject to the act.

"Judge Lamberth's opinion is inconsistent with that precedent," she said. "The actions of the president and his staff were fully consistent with the law and the Justice Department's advice. In light of these facts and the law, we strongly disagree with Judge Lamberth's opinion and are confident it will be overturned on appeal."

The judge's order came in a $90 million suit brought in the "Filegate" case by Judicial Watch, a conservative public interest law firm. The firm said the White House routinely gathered and released damaging information concerning political opponents. During several depositions, Judicial Watch sought to show a pattern of misconduct by asking White House officials about the Willey letters, though she is not a party to the suit.

Current and former White House aides Michael McCurry, Ann Lewis, Rahm Emmanuel, Sidney Blumenthal and Mr. Lindsey refused to answer some of the questions. Judge Lamberth said the plaintiffs "are clearly entitled to have the complete answers to their interrogatories made under oath."

The Willey letters were released in March 1998, a day after she appeared on "60 Minutes" to say Mr. Clinton had kissed her, cupped her breast and put her hand on his genitals during a Nov. 29, 1993, meeting to discuss full-time employment.

Mrs. Willey is a former part-time employee in the White House social office and later the White House counsel's office.

Mr. Clinton denied the charges, which mirrored statements Mrs. Willey made under oath in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct suit, and he later directed an aggressive White House campaign to discredit Mrs. Willey. A day before she aired her accusations on "60 Minutes," Mr. Clinton had aides collect fawning letters from Mrs. Willey to him and then asked his advisers if they thought releasing the notes would offset her jolting testimony, according to administration officials.

That day, for example, he telephoned longtime adviser James Carville to ask him whether releasing the letters some signed "Fondly, Kathleen" was wise. During a five-minute telephone call from Camp David, Mr. Clinton "said there were some letters that she had written and [White House lawyers] were considering making them public and what did I think about it," Mr. Carville said.

"I said, 'Well, I'm not sure what's in them, but if it was … past the time that she made this allegation, I thought it was a good idea,' " he said.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Lindsey were involved in the decision to use the letters against Mrs. Willey, administration sources said. At one point before their release, she and Mr. Blumenthal spoke by telephone about the letters.

Mr. Blumenthal told Justice Department lawyers that he and Mrs. Clinton discussed that the letters were inconsistent with what Mrs. Willey had said on "60 Minutes" and agreed they should be released.

During the Willey flap, the White House was careful to describe Mr. Clinton as a bit player in the effort to discredit critics such as Mrs. Willey and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Mr. Clinton said he didn't even watch Mrs. Willey's interview.

The letters show Mrs. Willey continuing to support the president after the purported 1993 encounter that she said occurred in a study just steps from the Oval Office. In one, dated Dec. 20, 1993, she wrote: "I just wanted to wish you a wonderful Christmas… . Thank you for the opportunity to work in this great house. After this bittersweet year, my first resolution for 1994 will be the pursuit of a meaningful job I hope it will be here."

She was referring to financial woes that forced her to seek a job and the suicide of her husband on the same day she claims the president assaulted her.

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