Penthouse Retrospective

by Joe Conason Originally Published: December, 2000

Paula Jones | 20 Years Ago This Month

Years from now, historians who assess the struggle between Clinton and his enemies are likely to regard the fall of 1997 as an important turning point. Asked what she would change now if she could, Jones says somewhat poignantly, “I would have settled. If I could have called him up… I would have called up and just settled and got out, I really would have. I mean, just because of what I’ve been through and stuff.” Why then did she decide against settling three years ago, even after her own lawyers prophetically warned that her lawsuit was unlikely to succeed?

During our exclusive interview with Jones, she seemed strikingly uncertain about the answer to that question as well as about other significant aspects of her lawsuit. She was unable to remember many details and often referred me to advisers who she said would know much more than she. It soon became clear that the most important issues had been decided by her lawyers, her then-husband, or her advisers.

“I was kind of at the hands of everybody else,” she admits. “You know, everybody who was supposed to be taking care of all this stuff. And I was just sitting back, taking care of [my] kids and worrying all the time.”

According to attorneys on both sides, they had secretly negotiated a tentative deal by early August 1997. Under its terms, the president would issue a statement acknowledging that Jones had done “nothing wrong” and pay her the sum of $700,000 . That was exactly the amount she’d demanded in her original complaint. Bolstered by the landmark Supreme Court decision a few months earlier that had permitted her lawsuit to proceed against a sitting president, Jones could have declared a moral victory and gone home with her winnings.

None of her far-right “allies” let Paula know their agenda. “Do you think they would actually tell me?” she asks. “No, they didn’t.”

But it was not to be. Jones, who says she’d always hoped for an out-of-court settlement, was instead prevailed upon by her husband and other advisers, notably Susan Carpenter-McMillan, to turn down the deal. Brassy-blonde antiabortion activist Carpenter-McMillan convinced Jones that she could win more money and full vindication of her good character only if Paula continued to press toward a trial.

“Oh, no, she sure didn’t want me to settle,” says Jones of the woman she says she came to trust like an older sister. “She knew that I could prove my case and win. And that was the reason they gave me, anyway.”

Jones says her husband and advisers insisted that there had been no bona fide offer from Clinton, anyway. Discussing the potential agreement, she sounds rather naive about how private lawsuits are settled — as if she somehow expected Clinton and his lawyers to announce their offer at a press conference instead of making a deal behind closed doors.

“Believe me, if there was a settlement offer, and if it was public, and if they [had] come out and said that, I would have settled in a heartbeat,” Jones says. “I didn’t want it to go this far. But even though I wanted to settle it, you know, people would turn my opinion around that, no, we’re going to get this thing to court, we’re going to go to trial, we’re going to prove this.”

Her rejection of the proposed settlement in late August infuriated not only the president’s attorney, Robert Bennett, but Jones’s own original attorneys, Gilbert K. Davis and Joseph Cammarata. They had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing a case that they felt had suddenly been transformed from a legitimate civil complaint into an unethical political vendetta. After trying for several weeks to convince Paula to relent, the two lawyers resigned in early September and asked the court to relieve them of their responsibility to represent her, citing “fundamental differences” with their client as well as ethical concerns.

Jones says she is still upset with Davis and Cammarata for resigning. “I don’t understand why, until this day, really and truly. And I would love to know why they quit my case just like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “They said it was because I turned down a settlement offer, and there was no settlement offer to turn down, so I don’t [know] why they quit me. And then, when they quit me, I had to still pay them money after the case was settled. I just feel I was treated wrong.”

Actually, Jones admits that she isn’t sure who-if anyone-was telling the truth about the possibility of a deal with Clinton. Sometimes she feels that she was misled by everyone involved. “It’s just so confusing, I’m telling you, it really is confusing about the whole situation,” she says. “But as far as the settlement thing is concerned, I don’t see [how] Joe and Gil could have benefited if it wasn’t really a settlement on the table.

“But, at the time, I had my husband and I had Bill McMillan [Susan Carpenter-McM ii Ian’s husband, a Los Angeles personal-injury lawyer] and different ones, saying that ‘There’s not a settlement here, you can’t take that, you can’t do that.’ Who was right and who was wrong, I don’t know. Because there was never an offer made, a dollar figure made. And Billy [McMillan] said, ‘There has to be a dollar figure… we can’t even get a dollar figure out of them.’”

Yet there was in fact a very specific offer of $700,000 on the table, as Davis and Cammarata explained in two long letters they sent to Jones in August before they finally quit the case. In those letters and in conversations with Paula and Steve Jones, the attorneys also offered to reduce their bill for fees and expenses, which had climbed to considerably more than $750,000, so that their client would be assured of netting at least $220,000.

The story in the Ray Stevens classic song "Along Came Jones" could well fit the real person Paula Jones in some ways. Bill Clinton might not be thrilled, though.

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