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Clinton reprieve on sex charges

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton's lawyers have won a procedural victory in the Paula Jones case which is likely to put back any hearing into her sexual harassment charges at least until 1996 and probably until after the Presidential election that November.

With a nine-page ruling issued late on Thursday, Little Rock federal judge Susan Webber Wright sided with the Clinton defence team and declared she would first decide on whether a sitting president is immune from civil lawsuits, before allowing the case to go any further. Mr Clinton 'may or may not succeed' with his claim, she wrote, but such lawsuits could prove a distraction that could damage both his office and the interests of the country itself.

The ruling means that Mr Clinton will not have to file a formal response, dealing with the substance of the lurid allegations against him, until after the immunity issue is disposed of. The expectation is that the appeal process will go all the way to the Supreme Court. That alone would take up to two years, predicted Robert Bennett, the President's atttorney. Even if he ultimately loses, other appeals by Mr Clinton could delay hearings proper until after the election.

Ms Jones claims that Mr Clinton, when governor of Arkansas, exposed himself to her and requested oral sex in a Little Rock hotel room in May 1991. Mr Clinton denies meeting Ms Jones, then an Arkansas state employee. Declaring her case to be of a 'purely personal nature', the judge noted she had waited almost three years, until almost the last possible moment, to file her complaint.

The ruling is also expected to freeze the case against Danny Ferguson, the Arkansas state trooper and co-defendant, whom Ms Jones accuses of setting up the meeting with then Governor Clinton.

But respite from the President's embarrassments will be brief. Televised Congressional hearings into the Whitewater affair open on Tuesday. Although limited in scope, they will air new allegations that Mr Clinton last year improperly approached the Comptroller of the Currency, a top bank supervisory official, for advice on the issue, and potentially damaging evidence against Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, a close friend of Mr Clinton from their undergraduate days. Mr Altman was in charge of the ROTC, the federal body sorting out debris left by failed savings banks at the centre of the Whitewater affair.

Witnesses at the hearings, which begin in the House before shifting to the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, are a virtual roll-call of the Clinton White House. Among those summoned to testify are advisers George Stephanopoulos and Thomas 'Mack' McLarty, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler and his predecessor Bernard Nussbaum, and other top aides of both Mr and Mrs Clinton. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, as well as Mr Altman, is also expected to testify.

Although nothing damning is likely to emerge, the hearings will do nothing to enhance the President's sagging prestige. His approval rating now stands at a 12- month low of 42 per cent, while two-thirds of the population has doubts about his honesty.