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Disbar Clinton, panel urges

The Arkansas committee's recommendation, which the president will fight, arises from the Paula Jones case.

A disciplinary committee of the Arkansas Supreme Court recommended on Monday that President Clinton be disbarred because of his "serious misconduct" in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

The court-appointed panel, the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct, concluded that Clinton should receive the severest sanction _ the loss of his state license to practice law _ for providing false testimony in 1998 about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

The testimony had been given in a lawsuit by Paula Jones that had accused Clinton of sexual misconduct while he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee.

Under the committee rules, the disbarment recommendation will now be considered by a Pulaski County circuit judge in Little Rock, who will oversee any disbarment proceedings.

If the judge decides to disbar Clinton, the president can appeal the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Clinton said in an interview broadcast Monday night that he would vigorously defend himself but that he would not participate in disbarment proceedings in Arkansas. The president said he had promised the American people after the impeachment trial that he would not "personally involve" himself in such matters until he left office.

"It's not right," he said in an interview with NBC News.

"The only reason I agreed even to appeal it is that my lawyers looked at all the precedents and they said there's no way in the world, if they just treat you like everybody else has been treated, that this is even close to that kind of case," Clinton said.

"So the precedents contradict this decision, and ultimately the decision has to be made by a judge," he said. "And so we're going to give the judge a chance to do what we believe is right, and I think that's the right thing to do."

Clinton argued earlier this month that his 20 years of public service should persuade the panel to be lenient and not recommend anything harsher than a reprimand.

He also insisted again that he did not technically lie before a federal judge in the Jones case. The president maintained that his answers under oath denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky were technically accurate.

Last year, Clinton was the first president to be held in contempt of court by a federal judge. The president could avoid the disbarment proceedings if he voluntarily surrendered his Arkansas law license, but his private lawyer, David Kendall, rejected that option Monday.

"This recommendation is wrong and clearly contradicted by precedent," Kendall said. "We will vigorously dispute it in a court of law."

The panel's decision on Monday moves Clinton, who is only licensed to practice law in Arkansas, one step closer to becoming the first president to be disbarred while in office. Richard Nixon was disbarred in July 1976 by the Appellate Division of the New York state Supreme Court on charges of obstruction of justice connected with the Watergate scandal.

The panel's recommendation surprised some legal experts, who said that it seemed harsh when compared to similar disciplinary cases in Arkansas.

Said Judith Kilpatrick, who teaches at the University of Arkansas Law School, "I'm rather surprised, especially because this is a first offense and it did not involve something like stealing from clients."

The disciplinary committee imposes sanctions on as many as 100 lawyers a year. The panel usually recommends disbarment only in cases where a lawyer has stolen money from a client.

However, in 1998, the state Supreme Court withheld a license from lawyer who had committed insurance fraud, saying, "There is simply no place in the law for a man or woman who will not tell the truth even when his interest is involved."

Clinton has not practiced law since the early 1980s, between his first and second terms as governor of Arkansas. And although he has said he does not intend to practice law upon leaving the White House in January 2001, the president, a graduate of Yale Law School, has vigorously defended himself against the state disciplinary proceedings.

It is not clear what practical effect a disbarment would have on Clinton's career after he leaves the White House. Friends of the president have said they expected him to teach, write books and work on public policy issues.

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

The disbarment committee has 14 members. Six panelists of the committee heard the president's case on Friday. Five are lawyers and the sixth is a retired schoolteacher.

Eight of the committee's panelists had recused themselves, most of them citing potential conflicts of interest because said they had business or personal relationships with the president.

The committee on Friday considered two complaints against Clinton, one filed by the Southeastern Legal Foundation, a conservative organization in Atlanta, and another by Judge Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided over the case in which Jones accused Clinton of sexual misconduct.

During a January 1998 deposition in that case, Clinton testified that he had not engaged in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. The president argued that he told the truth during the Jones deposition, but Wright disagreed.

On April 12, 1999, Wright held the president in contempt of court, fined him $90,000 and referred the matter to the Arkansas bar committee for possible disciplinary proceedings.

Wright did not suggest a specific penalty. But the Southeastern Legal Foundation had sought Clinton's disbarment.