Originally created 09/12/98

Area lawyers see falsehood as key to case



It's not the sex but the lying that counts, according to a panel of Augusta-area attorneys convened to discuss the independent counsel's allegations against President Clinton.

"The question is: Did the man lie? I think for politicians to lie to the public -- well, put it this way -- we wouldn't have any politicians left if they were prosecuted, but this is different. Lying in a court proceeding is a crime. And it's just plain stupid," said attorney John "Jack" Long.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's whole case against President Clinton is the president's own doing, Mr. Long said. Everything he's charged with happened within the past nine months, and the case is built on the president's own words, Mr. Long said.

"He has no one else to blame," Mr. Long said. "In a court proceeding, you have to tell the truth, and if you can't, you take the Fifth (Amendment)," he said.

Mr. Starr's report to Congress contends President Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and lied under oath to the grand jury Mr. Starr convened. It's now up to Congress to decide if there are grounds for impeachment.

Impeachment might be only the beginning of the president's troubles, said District Attorney Danny Craig. It wouldn't be difficult to prosecute and prove perjury with transcripts of Mr. Clinton's statements, Mr. Craig said.

"When you take the oath, it's before God, and the oath is the foundation of our legal system. We have a president of the United States who has taken a broad swipe at the foundation of our legal system," Mr. Craig said. A grand jury should decide if there's reason to indict Mr. Clinton, and if an indictment is issued, he should be prosecuted, Mr. Craig said.

And with the president's credibility shattered, if there is evidence he committed any crime in the Whitewater case, a conviction there is likely, Mr. Craig said.

Attorney Michael Garrett said President Clinton and his attorneys need first to decide whether the president hopes to be exonerated or avoid a criminal conviction.

"If he lied in grand jury testimony, he's already disregarded my advice, and I might be withdrawing as his attorney," Mr. Garrett said. The most deadly sin a client can commit is lying under oath, he said.

That Mr. Starr's case will continue to be reported and digested by the entire nation only makes matters worse, Mr. Garrett said.

"The most difficult case a lawyer can defend is one that has received a great deal of notoriety and publicity," Mr. Garrett said. Everyone involved in high-profile cases acts differently when the spotlight is on, and the more people know about a case the firmer their opinions become, he said.

At this point, a lawyer might not be able to help the president at all, said attorney Charles Lyons III.

Right now, it's really a one-sided ordeal, Mr. Lyons said, because Congress and the people have only the prosecutor's case created before a federal grand jury.

"All we've got is what the prosecutor wants you to hear. You can't effectively attack the report.

"My thoughts are that at this point, it's more political than anything. I think he's in a lot of trouble, and I don't think he has much of a defense," Mr. Lyons said.

Mr. Lyons says congressmen will wait to see what the polls say before reacting, and that Democrats will be more inclined to push for President Clinton's resignation because they still have Vice President Al Gore, who could step into the job and establish a record for himself and the party before the next presidential election.

Attorney Barbara Smith, who worked as a prosecutor for nine years before entering private practice, suspects Mr. Starr has more ammunition against the president, and that idea has Mr. Clinton's attorneys running scared.

"I'm not sure this should mean impeachment, but I think he should resign and get out of there at least. I certainly don't believe anything he says now," Ms. Smith said.

Although it's normally difficult to prove perjury, in this case there's a record and the president's own admission, Ms. Smith said. People say everyone lies, but lying under oath is a crime, she said.

The president has lost all credibility and faces not only possible scorn and disappointment from the public, but the wrath of the federal judge who presided over Ms. Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, Ms. Smith said.

Lying under oath in federal court is taken very seriously by judges, said Mr. Long. He's known federal judges to strike answers discovered to be false, throw out a defendant's defense and impose large fines, Mr. Long said.