A federal judge has ruled that President Clinton committed a criminal violation of the Privacy Act when he released to the public letters that had been sent to him by one of his accusers, Kathleen Willey.

Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth, who has been on the receiving end of a number of White House-related corruption cases, bluntly stated in his ruling, “The president committed a criminal violation of the Privacy Act,” and that his court “cannot accept or condone this unlawful action.”

Lamberth’s ruling was immediately disputed by Clinton, who told reporters he had never considered the Privacy Act when he “reluctantly” decided to release the Willey letters in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. The federal judge, who has a history of admonishing Clinton lawyers, concluded that in making Willey’s letters public, Clinton and three top White House lawyers had disregarded an earlier court ruling.

For his part, Clinton said he released the letters because “it was the only way I knew to refute allegations” by Kathleen Willey of an unwanted sexual advance.

The court’s ruling may have also cleared the way for a lawsuit against Clinton by Willey, a case which is being handled by Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based legal watchdog group. Judicial Watch claims several people “assisted” Clinton in the release of the Willey letters, based on interrogatory answers key White House officials have given to the group through court testimony.

Among those named by Judicial Watch as persons who “recommended or helped make the decision” to have Willey’s letters released are White House counsels Bruce Lindsey and Cheryl Mills, as well as Clinton lawyer Charles Ruff.

According to the Judicial Watch documents, White House aide Sydney Blumenthal, who was familiar with the letters, said he recalled discussing them with first lady Hillary Clinton by telephone in mid-March 1998. He said in written testimony that both he and Mrs. Clinton determined what Willey said during a March 1998 televised interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” program was “inconsistent” with what had been written in her letters, and because of that the letters “should be released.”

After discussing the matter with the first lady, Blumenthal said he left a message for reporter Jill Abramson at the New York Times, informing her that Willey’s televised comments did not match the content of her letters to the president.

The next day, the documents show, Blumenthal said he learned from newspapers while in Puerto Rico that the White House had decided to release the letters.

Lamberth agreed, saying that former White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, Deputy Counsel Bruce Lindsey and former Deputy Counsel Cheryl Mills engaged in discussions that led to the release of the letters. He dismissed administration arguments that the lawyers’ conversations were protected by attorney-client confidentiality.

“The discussions regarding the release of the Willey letters, even if initially protected by the attorney-client privilege, fall squarely within the crime-fraud exception,” he wrote, noting the lawyers recommended that the president release the letters, and juxtaposed that decision with a ruling he made nine months earlier that the White House needed to adhere to the Privacy Act.

“The White House and president were aware that they were subject to the Privacy Act, and yet chose to violate its provisions,” the judge wrote.

The Clinton team used the letter to undermine Willey’s allegations of unwanted sexual advances, saying the correspondence revealed that Willey remained friendly with the president even after the alleged offense. Clinton has vehemently and consistently denied making the advance, which Willey made public on CBS “60 Minutes.”

After disputing Lamberth’s decision, Clinton said at a news conference that his lawyers would take appropriate steps to appeal the ruling. The Justice Department, which still has an open investigation into another impeachment-related release of damaging information about Pentagon employee Linda Tripp – is reviewing the case. Earlier reports said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon may have been responsible for releasing Tripp’s personnel file information to reporters.

Of Lamberth’s ruling, White House counsel Beth Nolan said she was confident it would be overturned on appeal.

Besides taking issue with Lamberth’s ruling Clinton also hinted at a conspiracy to funnel cases involving him personally, or other scandals in which he allegedly participated, to Lamberth’s courtroom.

The president told reporters that Lamberth, a Republican appointee, “somehow acquired a significant percentage of the cases involving the White House. That’s an interesting story.”

His charges echoed those of Republicans last year who said the cases of other Clinton administration officials who were acquitted by other courts in Lamberth’s district – Washington, D.C. – were given to Democratic appointees friendly to the administration.

Although initially Lamberth’s ruling just requires Clinton’s attorneys to answer questions they earlier rejected about the decision to release the letters, the action could also pave the way for a lawsuit by Willey.

This latest setback for the administration will not be referred, however, to Independent Counsel Robert Ray, the man who assumed Kenneth Starr’s role after the former independent counsel stepped down in 1999. Ray, who must decide whether to indict Clinton after he leaves office, cannot prosecute a Privacy Act case because it only is a misdemeanor.

The White House said, “the president did not act willfully because the Department of Justice has, in the past, taken the position that the White House office is not subject to the Privacy Act,” Lamberth noted.

However, he also pointed out that in 1993, a White House memo to then-staff secretary John Podesta, who now is chief of staff, cautioned that the Privacy Act covers personnel folders of White House employees.

Willey was a White House volunteer seeking a full-time paying job when she went to Clinton because her husband was in deep financial trouble. Willey’s husband killed himself later that same day.

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