Clinton may be protected from law suit

THE Justice Department may recommend that the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones against President Bill Clinton should be dismissed or delayed indefinitely because United States presidents in office are entitled to broad immunity.

Fearful of allegations of conflict of interest, the department yesterday denied a New York Times report that it was preparing a brief for a federal judge in Little Rock who is to be asked by Mr Clinton's lawyer, Robert Bennett, to dismiss or postpone the case.

The administration is eager to quash or delay the Paula Jones suit quickly because of the political damage her allegations are doing to Mr Clinton. It would be embarrassing to Mr Clinton to have to prove in open court that he was not guilty of gross sexual misconduct.

Mr Bennett is arguing that no president can do his job if he becomes the target of lawsuits alleging wrongdoing before he entered the White House. He says the Paula Jones case set a precedent which could lead to thousands of people suing the president so 'he could be tied down 365 days by lawyers asking him questions'.

The Justice Department reportedly started to study the issue because a federal judge is likely to ask its opinion once Mr Bennett has filed his suit in Arkansas. But, probably recalling apparent instances of conflict of interest between government agencies and the White House over Whitewater, the department does not want to appear over-eager to get Mr Clinton off the hook.

There is no precedent for a US president being sued for his conduct before he took office. He has always had total immunity for official acts while he is in office. The last time this was tested before the Supreme Court was in a case involving President Richard Nixon who, as revealed by the Watergate tapes, had used the federal government to pursue personal feuds.

Paula Jones is asking for dollars 700,000 ( pounds 470,000) in damages for an incident which she says took place on 8 May 1991 in the Exelsior hotel, Little Rock, where she alleges a state trooper took her to see Mr Clinton who removed his trousers and requested oral sex.