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THE CHARGE WAS AS GRAPHIC AS ITS IMPLICATIONS were sleazy. On May 6, Paula Jones, 27, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing Bill Clinton of making sexual advances to her in a Little Rock hotel room three years ago, when he was governor of Arkansas and she was an administrative assistant for the state's industrial development commission. She had agreed to meet Clinton, she said in a lurid 20-page complaint, "because she thought it might lead to an enhanced employment opportunity with the state." But the encounter, she claims, turned into something she did not expect—or want. She said the man who would be elected President of the United States 18 months later dropped his pants and asked her for oral sex. She refused, she said, and left the suite. Afterward, Jones now claims, she "was treated in a hostile and rude manner" at her job and was denied raises.

Now, three years later, Jones is asking 8700,000 in damages for "intentional infliction of emotional distress." Legal experts are divided as to whether Jones—who missed a legal deadline to file federal sexual harassment charges and has instead invoked a federal civil rights statute—can keep her unique case in court. An examination of her employment record indicates that after May 8, 1991, when the hotel-room encounter allegedly took place, she received several salary increases before voluntarily leaving her job in February 1993. Her credibility has also been undermined by her connection to several right-wing groups opposed to the President. "I think she's being used," said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, whose client, the President, insists the incident never took place.

In fact, the division of opinion about Jones extends even into her own family. Paula's sister Lydia Cathey, 29, says that Paula came to see her the night after the alleged incident in tears. "I comforted her as she told me what happened," Cathey says. "She was scared he would come back to her again and worried that she would lose her job." But sister Charlotte Brown, 33, remembers a very different scene. When Paula told her of the encounter with Clinton, hours after it allegedly took place, she seemed amused, says Brown, not traumatized, and later confided to her sister that "she smelt money either way it went."

Paula's husband, sometime movie actor Steve Jones, 33, denies she hopes to cash in on her celebrity. "This is not about money," he says. "If that were the case, we'd be on every tabloid TV show already.... We want to try this in a court of law and let the chips fall where they may."

Since filing her lawsuit, Jones has avoided the press. Speaking to PEOPLE last week from her rented condominium in Long Beach, Calif., where she lives with Steve, their son Madison, 21 months, and a pit bull, Jones acknowledged she was under "strict orders" from her lawyers to keep quiet. "I can't say nothing to nobody," she said. "I don't know if I'll ever talk."

Acquaintances back home are not so reticent, and by their accounts Paula Corbin Jones did not have an easy life in little Lonoke, Ark. (pop. 4,123). She was raised in a household where Bible Belt beliefs were hitched to the tightest notch. Her father, Bobby Gene Corbin, worked at a clothing factory and her mother, Delmer, fashioned dresses from the fabric scraps her husband brought home. There was no television in their two-story home, and the family gathered daily for fervent prayer sessions.

In his spare time, Bobby traveled throughout the area as a Nazarene preacher, often bringing his three daughters along to sing hymns and Bible verses. "We could never go out to the movies or the skating rink or bowling alley—those were worldly things," recalls Charlotte. "My parents considered the outside world a bad influence. We were kept from all that."

Until, that is, they became teenagers. As children, the Corbin girls "had to wear long dresses, long hair, no makeup," says Amelia Turner, a neighbor. "Then when the) hit their teens, they just went wild and started wearing some outfits I wouldn't be caught in."

According to a schoolmate of Paula's, the transformation dated from the death of Bobby from a heart attack while playing the piano at church in 1985. "The day he died, boy, those skirts went up 10 inches," she says.

Yet some neighbors have fond memories of Paula in these years. "She's considerate, kind and was always there when I needed her," says Dianna Cargle, 21, a receptionist who knew Paula first as a baby-sitter, then a friend. "She was my role model growing up. She told me rights and wrongs, and when I was about 11 she started fixing my hair, painting my fingernails and dressing me up."

All three Corbin girls struggled academically. Paula was the only one to complete high school, which she accomplished by transferring to a school in nearby Carlisle that accepted fewer credits for graduation. In 1985 she enrolled at now-defunct Capital City Junior College in Little Rock to become an executive secretary, but dropped out after six months.

Meanwhile, Delmer Corbin was struggling to make ends meet, especially after the family home burned down in December 1986. Delmer and her two younger daughters temporarily moved into the trailer where Charlotte was living with her husband, Mark Brown, then a disc jockey at a Little Rock nightclub called B.J.'s Star-Studded Honky Tonk. Mark, who also dismisses Jones's claim of sexual harassment, says his sister-in-law was often flirtatious with men. "Paula loves dressing real provocative," says Brown. "Hot damn. I'd have probably propositioned her myself."

It was at B.J.'s one night in December 1989 that Paula met Steve Jones, a Memphis-born Northwest Airlines ticket agent who aspired to be an actor. (In fact, Jones filmed a bit part as the ghost of Elvis in Mystery Train, an offbeat feature directed by Jim Jarmusch that year.) According to friends, she was attracted to his sloe-eyed good looks, and Jones bought Paula a leather jacket and Gucci bag soon after meeting her. "She was always saying, 'He looks just like Elvis and talks like him,' " says Kim Babb, owner of a pest-control company that employed Paula for several months in 1990. "She called his answering machine once so we could hear his voice."

Soon Corbin and Jones were living together in a two-bedroom saltbox home near Valonia, 45 miles north of Little Rock. While Steve issued tickets for Northwest at the capital's airport, Paula worked at five different clerical and sales positions in the area; some of the jobs were temporal's, and none lasted more than six months. "We let her go after a few months because we didn't need that position anymore," says Babb. "She was doing just fine. No problems." On March 11, 1991, just two months before the alleged encounter with Clinton, Paula was hired as a documents examiner at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission (AIDC) at a salary of $10,270 a year. Her short, tight dresses and habit of wearing her hair in a knot on the side earned her the nickname Minnie Mouse among security guards at the Slate Capitol.

On May 8, AIDC sponsored its third annual Governor's Quality Management Conference at the Excelsior Hotel. Clinton delivered an address, and at about 2:30 that afternoon, Jones slated in her complaint, slate trooper Danny Ferguson came up to the registration desk where she was working and invited her to meet the governor in a hospitality suite.

Once they were alone, she says in her statement, the governor tried to kiss her neck and run his hands up her legs, but she walked away. Then, she said, he made his sexual request. Jones said she jumped away, saying, "I'm not that kind of girl." Clinton allegedly replied, "Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do," and offered to intercede with her boss if she got in trouble for missing work, telling her, "Let's keep this between ourselves."

But Paula did not slay silent. In addition to her sisters, she claims to have told two coworkers, Pamela Blaekard and Debra Ballentine, who have both confirmed hearing about the Clinton encounter at the time. It is not clear whether she told Steve, whose own sexual attitudes sometimes made coworkers uncomfortable, according to his former shop steward at Northwest, Gayle Hitchings. "When you talked with him. the conversation would eventually lead into some area of sex—he'd even ask about personal sexual habits," she says. Another former colleague says he also posted a lewd sketch of a naked woman on a friend's locker. Before Steve married Paula, she adds, he would often show coworkers photos of Paula in sexy underwear, and his general behavior prompted "complaints about him from women he worked with," says Hitchings, who adds, "I couldn't get anyone to press charges."

During the 1992 campaign, Jones plastered Bush/ Quayle campaign material on his locker, his gym bag—even a button on his Northwest uniform, until he was asked to remove it. "He hated Clinton," says Jim Fenderson, a friend who often rode to work with Jones and who believes that "Steve would have been screaming bloody murder if something happened to Paula. He would have made us aware that Clinton was a scumbag." In May 1993, Jones put in for a transfer to California so he could pursue his acting career.

Some who remember Steve Jones's animus toward Clinton think he might have prodded his wife into filing her lawsuit. Others suspect he pushed her—but not out of hatred for Clinton. Rather, they say, he saw the suit as a way to boost his film career. Paula insists that she came forward only to "clear my name" after state troopers Larry Patterson and Roger Perry detailed a damaging version of the Hotel Excelsior encounter to The American Spectator magazine. The troopers' story, published in December, said a woman identified only as "Paula" had an hour-long tryst with Clinton in the Excelsior and later let it be known that "she was available to be Clinton's regular girlfriend if he so desired."

But attorney Robert Bennett ascribes another motive for the lawsuit against the President: money. To back up his claim, Bennett released an affidavit from George Cook, a Little Rock businessman who says he was approached last January by Danny Traylor, Jones's lawyer at the time. Traylor wanted Cook to act as a go-between with the President, he said. In the affidavit, Cook quoted Traylor as admitting "his case was weak" but threatening to "embarrass [Clinton] publicly" if the President did not pay Jones to keep quiet. Cook also swore that Traylor said it would help if Clinton used his influence to get a job for Jones in California.

In February, Jones suddenly surfaced at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to reveal that she was the Paula in the Spectator article—but to give a different version of the hotel meeting. At a press conference she blamed a state trooper—later identified as Ferguson (whom she is suing along with Clinton)—for being the source of the story that she had sex-with Clinton. But when reporters asked her directly if Clinton had threatened her in any way for refusing him, she replied, "No, he did not."

This first public appearance was arranged by Cliff Jackson, a Little Rock Republican lawyer and long-lime Clinton antagonist. In April, Jones appeared on televangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club and said Clinton lowered his pants and asked her to perform a sex act. "I felt dirty," she said. "I felt raped. Whether he touched me or not, it was disgusting what he did."

Some neighbors in Long Beach have little good to say about the Joneses, who moved into their one-bedroom apartment in December and have reportedly been unusually rude and combative over issues involving parking spaces and cleaning up after their dog. Paula, says a former management worker, has "the mouth of a truck driver sometimes." And a tenant reports that the Joneses have had loud, raucous fights, recently over money and Paula's lack of employment. (Last week, leaders of the right wing Legal Affairs Council, which raised money for Oliver North, and the Christian Defense Coalition, announced they were starting a fund to pay Jones's legal fees, which could top $l million.)

It is not clear how long the couple will stay in Los Angeles, but Paula would apparently prefer to move back to Arkansas. "I hate all you people in California," she shouted at one of her neighbors during an argument. "All you do is complain and sue each other."

DAVID ELLIS
JANE SIMS PODESTA, KATE KLISE, JANE SANDERSON and JOSEPH HARMES in Little Rock, TOM CUNNEFF, JOHNNY DODD and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles, CLARE MEAD ROSEN in Memphis, and bureau reports

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Kate Klise,
  • Jane Sanderson,
  • Joseph Harmes,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Johnny Dodd,
  • Lyndon Stambler,
  • Clare Mead Rosen.