September 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Comic Paula Poundstone was bombed—and bombing. Trying to work the crowd at a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser on May 9 at New York’s Mamaroneck Beach and Yacht Club between swigs of white wine, “things got a bit messy,” recalls a close friend. One particularly embarrassing moment: The comedian asked a teenager in the audience a litany of questions, then suddenly called on the girl again and began asking the very same things. “People were cringing,” says Poundstone’s pal. “Everyone was looking at each other, going ‘What’s going on?’ ” The next day Poundstone left the friend a message: “Please call me. We gotta talk about last night. I don’t think it went so good.”

And catastrophe lay ahead. On June 27, two weeks after checking herself into the Promises Malibu rehab center, Poundstone was arrested at the exclusive $33,850-a-month cliff-top retreat where Ben Affleck has undergone treatment. The charges against the 41-year-old single mother: three counts of committing lewd acts on a girl under 14 and one count of endangering two other girls and two boys, including, possibly, her adopted children. After posting $200,000 bail, Poundstone—a fixture on cable TV who once had her own network show on ABC—was allowed to return to Promises.

Last week she and her attorney Steven Cron attended a hearing at the Santa Monica courthouse. “Everything I’ve seen from the facts of the case,” Cron said afterward, “convinces me that Paula is not a child molester…. Paula is not guilty.” But in the meantime, her three adopted and two foster children, who range in age from 10 months to 12 years, have been taken from her and placed in other homes. “I think she was completely and totally surprised,” says Cron.

Shocked might better describe the reaction of her many friends, both in and out of show business, including Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin and Jay Leno. “I am baffled by this,” says Leno, who wrote a letter supporting Poundstone. “She takes in the kids that are physically and emotionally challenged, the ones others won’t take, and gives them a place to live.” The authorities maintain the charges have substance. “Our standard in filing cases,” says Los Angeles County Deputy DA Gina Satriano, who is prosecuting Poundstone and who has interviewed her children, “is that we have to believe we have sufficient evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Satriano, like all parties involved, is under court order not to discuss specifics in the case.)

According to sources close to Poundstone, her strained relationship with her 12-year-old foster child, combined with the comedian’s difficulties with alcohol, appear to be at the heart of the criminal charges. Realizing she had a drinking problem, Poundstone arranged to check herself into Promises in early June, they say. But before she could do so, “somebody saw her tipsy, felt she was drinking around the kids and reported it—as they should have,” says a friend of Poundstone’s. Child-welfare authorities then launched an investigation and, according to the friend, the 12-year-old volunteered the abuse complaints. Another friend alleges that Poundstone said that the foster child had exhibited psychological problems in the past—and that Poundstone and the child had entered therapy together.

Satriano declined to comment on whether alcohol played a role in the investigation or to confirm that the victim of the alleged lewd acts was the 12-year-old. “These cases are all about the kids and trying to protect the information that comes out,” she says. But those who specialize in defending against sexual abuse charges say it’s not unusual for foster children to make such claims. “I see it all the time,” says Patrick Clancy, a Walnut Creek, Calif., attorney who is not involved in the Poundstone litigation. “Many of these kids who have been in and out of foster homes know the power of the allegation.” He cites a 1999 Department of Health and Human Services study which reported that 54.7 percent of alleged child mistreatment accusations, when investigated, proved “unsubstantiated.” To which Satriano says, “Not being able to find evidence of abuse is very different from saying the child is lying.”

To hear Poundstone tell it, her own childhood, though comfortably middle-class, was far from idyllic. She grew up in Sudbury, Mass., an affluent suburb of Boston, the youngest of four children of Jack, now 71 and a retired engineer, and Vera, 68, a housewife. “I used to watch The Waltons and sob because my family was nothing like that,” the comedian told PEOPLE during a 1993 interview. “We had a cruel sense of humor in my family,” said Poundstone, who recalled often being the target. (As an adult she has had little contact with her parents; her father says “her family is supporting her” through her ordeal.)

In 1979 Poundstone started doing stand-up comedy in Boston. Within a year she moved West, honing her wry, observational style first in San Francisco, then in Los Angeles. Her career ignited when she covered the 1992 presidential race for The Tonight Show, leading to her own series, The Paula Poundstone Show, on ABC the following year. “She was on top of the world and she was still unhappy—there was something missing,” remembers sister Patricia Poundstone, now 44 and a biochemist. Then, in 1993, Paula took in her first foster child, the newborn son of a drug-addicted teenage mom. “I saw how happy she was with him,” says Patricia. “I thought, ‘There you go, this is what she wanted.’ ”

With the help of two nannies, Poundstone has cared for more than a dozen children over the years, many of whom have physical or emotional disabilities. She has trimmed back her performing—and her income, to about $750,000 a year—so she can be home as much as possible. “She took on children with enormous challenges,” observes Miriam Billington, PTA president at Santa Monica’s McKinley Elementary School, attended by two of Poundstone’s adopted daughters. “And she handles those challenges herself.”

The challenge Poundstone faces now is legal. Both sides seem eager to avoid a trial for the sake of the children, and there are hints at a possible plea bargain. “These cases are never pleasant on either side,” notes prosecutor Satriano. “Whether an investigation shows something is true or false, both ways, they have great repercussions.” Certainly the comedian and her supporters would agree with that. Poundstone’s two foster children are now with other foster families. Only slightly less wrenching is that her three adopted children are in the care of an unnamed family friend in the Los Angeles area, according to her lawyer Cron. “She sees them pretty regularly,” he says, including on weekend visits in rehab. No matter the outcome of the charges, her career has taken a huge hit. “She’s lost a lot of work in clubs, and especially corporate events,” says Budd Friedman, owner of the Hollywood comedy club the Improv.

The allegations are also having a chilling effect on her friends and neighbors. “People are really nervous and scared,” Billington says, “because children say stuff all the time. Everyone’s thinking, ‘What is lewd? What does that mean?’ Parents try to be perfect, and what if someone thinks we’re not and thinks it’s worthy of a lawsuit? That’s part of why the outcry has been so great. This really touches everybody’s life as parents.”

Pam Lambert

Johnny Dodd, Mark Dagostino, Ulrica Wihlborg, Vicki SheffCahan, Frank Swertlow, Michelle Caruso, Leslie Berestein and John Hannah in Los Angeles and Anne Driscoll in Sudbury

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