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Mud Splashes Back at Governor

Victory in hand, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger still has a problem, and I don’t just mean budget cuts. I’m talking about what can be called a Paula Jones situation.

You could see the lawsuit against him coming from a mile away, and last week it landed in Los Angeles County Superior Court with a thud that rattled all the way to the governor’s office in Sacramento.

The story begins Oct. 6, the day before Schwarzenegger won the election, when a Hollywood stand-in and stunt double named Rhonda Miller claimed she had been sexually harassed by Schwarzenegger on the sets of “Terminator 2" and “True Lies.” Miller, 4 feet 11 and 100 pounds, said she had resisted and run screaming from Schwarzenegger.

After the October news conference, she headed home to Burbank to care for her 87-year-old mother. Before she got there, she turned on the car radio and found out what can happen when a no-name takes on a powerful celebrity, particularly when he happens to be running for office.

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“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Miller, 53, who was being called a convicted felon on a radio show.

When she got home, she turned on the tube and saw the same allegations regurgitated on local and national TV, and there was even more on the Internet. She was a forger, a prostitute, a drug pusher, a thief and more.

Miller was horrified, particularly because none of it was true. Her daughter, a teacher, heard the news and called to ask what was going on.

Here’s the answer:

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The Schwarzenegger team, reeling from sexual harassment allegations by a parade of women, went after Miller with a vengeance.

Schwarzenegger denied Miller’s claims that he had lifted her shirt, photographed her breasts and sucked on them, or that he had harassed her again on the set of “True Lies.” His campaign staff also produced two crew members from “Terminator 2" who denied Miller’s claims.

Then came the rough stuff.

Sean Walsh, a Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman, sent an e-mail to editors and reporters, directing them to the Los Angeles County Superior Court Web site.

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Type in the names “Rhonda” and “Miller,” Walsh suggested.

The result?

A rap sheet popped up, dealing a crushing blow to Miller’s believability.

Just one problem.

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It was the wrong Rhonda Miller.

When you typed in her name along with the correct birth date, you got nothing, because Miller’s record, at least in Los Angeles County, was clean.

Whoops.

Last week, Miller filed a libel suit against Schwarzenegger, his campaign organization and Walsh, for attempting to destroy her reputation. Her attorneys are Paul Hoffman and Gloria Allred.

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Miller hasn’t found work in Hollywood since accusing Schwarzenegger and then getting trashed by his campaign. She just started a travel job, selling vacation packages.

She said she couldn’t sleep the night she was accused, because she was reeling from a double whammy.

First she gets pawed and feels powerless to do anything about it. And then she gets crushed like a cockroach for speaking up in support of other women whose claims of harassment were being challenged or dismissed as fun and games.

“I didn’t go anywhere,” Miller told me of the days after she was made out to be a lowlife. “I didn’t want to go outside, and I basically stayed in the house.... I felt sick and disgusted.”

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Defamation cases can get pretty complicated, particularly when you factor in the unpredictability of juries. But unless Schwarzenegger knows something about Miller he hasn’t told us about, he appears to be in a bit of a pickle.

It doesn’t seem to help that, back in October, when Walsh was asked about the hatchet job on Miller, he said he had “worded that e-mail very carefully.”

What’s that supposed to mean?

Seems to me a jury could interpret that to be an admission that the Schwarzenegger camp was up to no good, and decided to see how many news organizations would take the bait.

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Or, legally speaking, that the Schwarzenegger campaign had malicious intent or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Schwarzenegger attorney Martin Singer put up a good front by saying he was confident the libel suit would be thrown out. But if he’s wrong, none of the options look good.

The governor can claim he knew nothing about the e-mail, and hang Walsh out to dry. But Walsh was his employee, and Schwarzenegger certainly didn’t do anything to call the dogs off of Miller.

The governor can get out his checkbook and try to make Miller go away, but that could be seen as an admission of a despicable character assassination by a man who promised to get to the bottom of all the groping allegations against him.

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(Schwarzenegger’s investigation of himself has been called off, however, an unsettling development that leaves us wondering if the real groper is still on the loose.)

Schwarzenegger could take his chances in court, but that could be disastrous.

When I interviewed Miller in Allred’s office, Allred was wearing an alligator pin the size of a possum. As a general rule, you should avoid courtroom confrontations with a lawyer brandishing a reptile.

She’ll be tenacious, says GOP consultant Arnie Steinberg. She’s also a highly partisan Democrat, Steinberg said, and may have an agenda beyond the defense of her client. Allred, of course, denies that this is about politics.

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We’ll see.

This isn’t a perfect parallel, but President Clinton’s fibbing during a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case torpedoed the president in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“As Jim Carville made clear subsequently, the biggest mistake President Clinton made was not settling right away with Paula Jones,” says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

“That way you stop a process that just keeps devolving into a bigger and bigger mess.”

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Gov. Schwarzenegger and his entire campaign team could be dragged in for depositions on the general theme of, “What did you know about smearing Miller, and when did you know it?”

Allred’s not the only one up to her neck in alligators.

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Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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