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Being Fair With a Beset Bill Clinton : Issue of his huge legal bills should be addressed

Bill Clinton is facing a personal challenge that historians think may be unique in the annals of the presidency. He is being sued for alleged wrongdoing that occurred before he was elected President.

Until it is proven otherwise, Clinton of course remains innocent of the allegations lodged against him, and for one reason or another the case may in fact never come to trial. But meanwhile Clinton has been compelled to hire an expensive Washington lawyer, Robert S. Bennett. How much Bennett is charging his client is privileged, but assuming he’s selling his services at the usual rate Clinton could easily be running up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and costs.

In addition Clinton is paying another private lawyer to look out for his interests in the Whitewater investigation. All told, it’s possible that he could eventually be responsible for legal fees that will exceed the $800,000 he will be paid over four years as President.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a President can’t be sued for official acts carried out while he is in office. What’s uncertain--legal experts disagree--is whether a President can be sued over events that took place before he entered the White House. Bennett is expected to argue that a President has the right not to be distracted from his official duties by such suits. But some would see that contention as coming very close to claiming that whoever becomes President is, once safely in office, above the law.

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This is not the time to consider the merits of the allegations made by Paula Corbin Jones, who says that three years ago then-Gov. Clinton made a sexual proposal to her in a Little Rock hotel room that caused her emotional distress and violated her civil rights; her lawsuit demands $700,000. The immediate issue, given what has occurred, is Clinton’s right not to be driven to financial ruin while defending himself against these allegations.

There’s no question, we think, that Clinton is entitled to accept donations to help pay his legal fees. Contributors to such a legal defense fund should be asked to remain anonymous. Public disclosure should be made only after his presidency ends. The fund ought to be administered by independent accountants, with rigorous safeguards set up to insulate the President and, no less important, the whole of his Administration from any knowledge of who gave what, and so from any suspicion that contributors might be rewarded with political favors. This won’t necessarily be easy. But it can be done, and as a matter of fairness and of right it should be done.


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