By Paul W. Valentine
Linda R. Tripp has acknowledged to a federal grand jury that she knowingly violated Maryland's anti-eavesdropping law by secretly taping telephone conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky.
But the admission may do little to help state prosecutors pursue their own case against Tripp, because she made the statement after being granted immunity by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
On July 29, Tripp said under oath that she taped two conversations without Lewinsky's consent in late December after being warned by lawyers that it was against the law. Tripp's testimony, before the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky case on Starr's behalf, was included among thousands of pages of documents released Friday by the House Judiciary Committee.
Tripp said she viewed the illicit taping as "the lesser of two evils to what I was walking into with something involving the president of the United States."
"To me," Tripp said, "the choice was clear. I needed to protect myself" with documentation.
Tripp's awareness of the violation is a critical point, because under Maryland's hard-to-enforce wiretap statute which carries up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine upon conviction prosecutors must prove a defendant knowingly broke the law. Without a confession or acknowledgment from the defendant, it is virtually impossible to prove, prosecutors say.
But while Tripp's admission is now very public, it may be beyond the reach of Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who is conducting a grand jury investigation into Tripp's secret taping of the calls at her home in suburban Howard County.
In exchange for Tripp's telephone tapes and extensive testimony before the grand jury, Starr granted Tripp immunity from prosecution based on any information she provided.
While Starr's immunity grant was limited to federal law violations, generally no evidence produced as a result of such immunity can be used by prosecutors in other jurisdictions such as Maryland to build a case on a separate state law, according to Tripp's attorneys and legal experts not involved in the case.
Montanarelli's case "must be developed wholly on evidence gathered independently of . . . [Starr's] office," said Anthony Zaccagnini, one of Tripp's attorneys. "Unless he can show that he knew of the alleged [taping] before Linda came forward to [Starr's] office last January 12, then everything he has learned since then is tainted."
Generally speaking, said University of Baltimore law school professor Byron L. Warnken, evidence including physical items such as tape recordings that have been provided under a federal immunity agreement cannot be used by state prosecutors.
Even Montanarelli's office acknowledges that its access to the telephone tapes, the central evidentiary nugget for any wiretap case, may be a long shot that could involve a legal fight with Starr's office.
"We haven't really determined what the immunity agreement means for us," said office spokesman Gavin Patashnick. Meanwhile, he said, investigators are forging ahead with their only alternative: developing a case, as Zaccagnini said, that is independent of Starr's information. Montanarelli has said such a course is difficult.
The tapes made by Tripp had a central role at the start of the Lewinsky scandal. They provided Starr with accounts by Lewinsky of her relationship with President Clinton and of attempts by the White House to help her find a job.
Tripp told the grand jury she made at least 15 tapes last year before learning of the Maryland law. Then she stopped, after being warned by two lawyers that such secret taping was illegal.
In mid-December, however, Tripp testified, she decided to resume taping because she said she wanted documentation to protect herself against possible perjury charges if she were called to testify about Lewinsky's claims of a sexual relationship with Clinton.
The first time, on Dec. 12, she said, she was talking with Lewinsky from the family room of her Columbia home and noticed the recorder was running inadvertently, and she "decided to continue to tape."
Because she knew it was illegal, she said, "I was completely convinced that I was already in trouble, but I figured the act of doing it anyway on purpose was . . . tempting because there were a lot of things going on during this time period with [Clinton confidant] Vernon Jordan [and] I wanted to arm myself with [a] record."
Tripp said she decided to tape a second conversation on Dec. 22, because "during this entire period . . . the dizzying series of events . . . were just coming to a head and . . . all this illegal activity was going on and I was not arming myself with the proper record."
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