LOS ANGELES – While Paula Abdul (search) has joined the ranks of celebrities who have successfully fended off allegations of misconduct, there's still a jury to be heard from.
It remains up to the "American Idol" (search) audience to decide whether TV's No. 1 show has retained its credibility when it returns — along with Abdul, who's getting to keep her job with the backing of lawyers and the FOX network.
Time is on the network's side. The series just began auditioning for its next season, which won't begin until January 2006, and the controversy could be a distant memory before then.
The network, which released a summary of a review by outside law firms into Corey Clark's (search) allegations of an affair with Abdul, apparently considers the case closed.
Abdul, who has denied Clark's allegations all along, is staying on the talent show's three-judge panel. And FOX is refusing to release the complete findings or make network executives available to discuss them.
FOX points to the facts they have made public: the respected law firms of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Morrison & Foerster handled the inquiry; more than 43 witnesses were interviewed and more than 600 legal hours and three months were involved.
The conclusion by lawyers Marcellus McRae and Ivy Kagan Bierman: There was no evidence to corroborate Clark's claim of an affair with the "American Idol" judge and no evidence that she tried to give him an advantage when he competed unsuccessfully in 2003.
That's enough for some avid "American Idol" viewers, including those who like Abdul's role on the show as a cheerleader.
"I'm happy to see her coming back," said John Forrest Ales. "She's what the whole show should be about, giving people a chance and watching what happens when young people explore their talent and try to follow their dream."
FOX's decision to use outside investigators "ups the credibility. ... It rests well with me," Ales said. It's not `Jeopardy!' but it's a big deal for those of us who are fans."
"If there's not proof, then that's it. If there was proof they could show favoritism and she did help him, I would have an issue with that," said Janina Perez.
But she added: "In regard to watching the show, I wouldn't stop."
Angela Agrusa, a lawyer who specializes in entertainment and other commercial litigation, said FOX confirmed the importance of the investigation and the value of its hit series by retaining the major law firms.
The number of interviews conducted "in what is really tantamount to a 'he said, she said' issue is respectable and suggests they did conduct some due diligence," Agrusa added. The decision to withhold the firms' report is not unusual, she said.
"Reports of this nature are generally maintained in confidence to protect both parties as well as" the witnesses interviewed, Agrusa said.
There will be one explicit change, however: An "enhanced non-fraternization policy" will be added to prevent future incidents that could appear to call into question the relationship between judges, contestants or others connected to "American Idol," FOX and the series' producers said in announcing Abdul's fate last week.
For Abdul, and celebrities in general, fame serves as a mixed advantage in the court of public opinion.
"I do believe there is a presumption, unfair or not, that celebrities misbehave," said Jonathan Wilcox, who teaches a class on the role of celebrity in society at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
But there's a bright side: They are almost automatically forgiven. "If it's the expectation, why punish them?" Wilcox said.
Industry analyst Bill Carroll said viewers seemed to have sided with Abdul with or without an investigation.
"There certainly was a sense, at least in watching the live audience at the end of last season, that they were supporting her," Carroll said.
More than Abdul's reputation was at stake: A significant drop in ratings could ultimately mean a serious loss of advertising dollars, even in the millions, he said. (FOX probably spent at least $180,000 for the legal work, according to estimates by Agrusa and other legal experts.)
But the series remained the most-watched on television even after reports detailing Clark's allegations against Abdul, including a claim that she advised him on his singing and appearance during their alleged relationship.
At the time, Clark — who was dumped from "American Idol" because he failed to reveal a prior arrest — was promoting an upcoming CD and single, a tune called "Paula-tics" in which he addressed their alleged affair.
He declined to comment Monday through his attorney, Richard B. Jefferson.
One viewer had already employed her own standard of innocence, using a sexy contestant from last season as a yardstick.
"If Paula didn't make a play for that perfect Greek man, Constantine Maroulis, then she definitely didn't do anything with Corey Clark!" Elysabeth Grant said Monday.
And let's not forget that "American Idol" is just for fun, said Hollywood publicist Michael Levine.
"It's an entertainment show and people know that in their core," he said. "Like wrestling, it's not serious sports. It's not Watergate, it's not Monica Lewinsky."