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Clinton on hook again over sex-case ruling

PRESIDENT Clinton hedged questions about his relationship with the former White House trainee, Monica Lewinsky, yesterday, saying he had "repeatedly" answered questions on the subject and had nothing more to say. He was responding to a volley of reporters' questions at his first solo press conference since allegations about an affair first surfaced in January.

The press conference had been expected to concentrate on the flourishing US economy and expansion of Nato. Instead, it was dominated by enquiries about the Lewinsky affair. The direction of questioning had become inevitable after the disclosure hours before that Ms Lewinsky could be summoned to testify about the relationship before the grand jury or even indicted for perjury.

She and Mr Clinton have denied having a sexual relationship. But in hours of private conversations with a colleague recorded without her knowledge, Ms Lewinsky, 24, gave a detailed account of an affair. The contradiction between her sworn statement and the contents of the tapes lies at the root of a grand-jury investigation into charges that the denials were false and that Mr Clinton may have pressed her to lie about an affair or induced her to do so by promising to arrange a lucrative job in the private sector.

Two months ago Ms Lewinsky's lawyer believed he had obtained her immunity from prosecution in return for her offer to testify that she had had a sexual relationship with the President. In a ruling confirmed yesterday, however, a judge decided no immunity deal had been struck, fuelling speculation that she would soon have to testify to the grand jury and bringing the Lewinsky affair squarely back into the centre of US media attention.

While fending off all questions about Ms Lewinsky yesterday, Mr Clinton deplored the public money being spent by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, and expressed sympathy for members of his staff caught up in the inquiry.

"The independent counsel," he said, "not only has an unlimited budget and can go on for ever - 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years - and spend $40m [pounds 25m] today, $100m tomorrow ... More and more people get called in and they spend money they don't have for legal fees that they can't afford." He said that if he could try "to figure out a way" to help his staff with their legal bills once he left office, he would. "I feel terrible about it."

Mr Clinton refused to condemn the prosecutor directly, saying people "could draw their own conclusions" and specifically denied he had any plans to dismiss him. That, he said, would not be "appropriate".

Mr Starr is trying to establish whether Mr Clinton committed perjury by lying about an affair with Ms Lewinsky and then tried to suborn her to perjure herself as well.

While it is thought unlikely Congress would impeach Mr Clinton for lying about a sexual affair, the charge of suborning perjury could present a bigger risk. With no immunity deal in place, Ms Lewinsky now has the option of appealing against that decision, offering more evidence to Mr Starr in a new bid for immunity or claiming the Fifth Amendment - refusing to testify on the grounds that she could incriminate herself.

Any of these options, however, will leave the scandal in the public eye and could, so long as his denial of the affair is contested, complicate Mr Clinton's presidency.

The resurfacing of the affair was an unwelcome development for the White House, which believed that, with the dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit last month,Mr Clinton had put the most potentially damaging sex scandal behind him.