As President William Jefferson Clinton exits the White House, he is stooping to one last grand prevarication as disbarment proceedings impend in the Committee on Professional Conduct of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The chief executive has persisted in his denials of lying, obstructing justice or other legal wrongdoing throughout his ordeals with Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, impeachment, the Paula Jones sexual-harassment litigation and Judge Susan Webber Wright’s contempt proceeding. According to the president, he sinned but was faithful to the law it was right-wing conspirators, a hyper-zealous independent counsel and imbalanced political partisans maliciously distorting the evidence to create a false appearance of perjury or corruption of justice.The subtext of Mr. Clinton’s defense has been that a fair and neutral tribunal would vote exoneration.
Now that presidential bluff has been called.
On Jan. 27, the Supreme Court of Arkansas unanimously ordered its seven-member Committee on Professional Conduct to commence disbarment proceedings against Mr. Clinton on two counts: a Sept. 15, 1998, ethics complaint filed by L. Lynn Hogue, an Arkansas licensed attorney, supported by Mr. Starr’s impeachment referral to the House of Representatives; and an April 12, 1999, submission by U.S. District Judge Wright in which she held Mr. Clinton in contempt of court based on a finding by “clear and convincing evidence” that he gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process” in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
Arkansas Rule 8.4 exposes a lawyer to disbarment for misconduct “involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation,” or “that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.” The Committee on Professional Conduct is empowered to investigate ethics complaints, conduct hearings and impose sanctions, subject to judicial review. Its members are appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court, and two of the seven must be non-lawyers.
A claim of anti-Clinton bias by the incumbents would be implausible. The seven Carlton Bailey, Sue Winter, Patricia Youngdahl, Richard A. Reid, Kenneth Reeves, Bart Virden and Win A. Trafford sat on the two complaints against the president for long months until ordered from their somnolence by the state Supreme Court. Finally, this month, the committee served Mr. Clinton with the accusations, to which he may respond in 30 days. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has reported that several committee members had contributed to Mr. Clinton’s political campaigns.
Here is his chance to satisfy his seeming craving to clear his name of legal wrongdoing before an unbiased tribunal. No evidence or even suspicion of right-wing conspirators, anti-Clinton politicians or an overzealous independent counsel to twist or manufacture the truth. A disbarment sanction would need approval by a state circuit court, with a right to appellate review in the Arkansas Supreme Court. In sum, Mr. Clinton would command a decided home court advantage if he chooses to contest the ethics complaints charging lying under oath and obstruction of justice.
But he has set the stage for forfeiting the game. During his press conference last week, the president insisted he settled the Jones suit and accepted Judge Wright’s contempt sanction because he was preoccupied and duty bound to do the people’s business. He temporized on how he planned to answer the ethics charges, but indicated the same reasons would, in an act of public selflessness, prohibit mounting an ethics defense.
That alibi is patently contrived. The president could request the Committee on Professional Conduct to postpone its investigation until his White House tenure expires. The pertinent evidence will not stale; expedition is not required because Mr. Clinton is not actively practicing law in Arkansas; and both the U.S. Supreme Court in the Jones litigation and Judge Wright in her contempt opinion indicated that scheduling in legal proceedings involving the president should bow to the needs of his office. Indeed, it is preposterous to think that the disciplinary panel would not grant Mr. Clinton a post-White House delay. Further, if he was sincere in contesting the complaints, he would first ask for the delay and throw in the towel only if it were denied.
When it comes to Monicagate, however, Mr. Clinton has married incorrigibility with duplicity more tightly than Penelope and Odysseus. He will most likely resign from the Arkansas bar, moot the disbarment proceedings and chirp that he is as innocent as the snow of false statements under oath or obstruction of justice. On that score, he is a second edition of President Nixon, who resisted till death accepting legal culpability in the Watergate cover-up and resigned from the California bar to escape disbarment.
In the eyes of history, however, Mr. Clinton’s last dodge around the overwhelming evidence of legal misconduct should be definitive of his guilt. He has exhausted his bag of excuses that bore perhaps a patina of credibility, and what is left should embarrass even his most ardent defenders.
But he is ready for a bravura performance of playing Iago in “Othello.”
Bruce Fein is a lawyer and free-lance writer specializing in legal issues.