Md. Official Takes Over Taping Probe
By Paul W. Valentine
A new prosecutor yesterday took over the investigation into whether Linda R. Tripp illegally tape-recorded telephone conversations with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky but said he, too, will defer to federal investigators before starting a probe.
Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli assumed control of the investigation at the request of Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican who had been accused by Democrats of dragging her feet on the inquiry for partisan reasons.
But Montanarelli, a Democrat, cautioned that the case requires "an extremely difficult burden of proof" and cannot be developed swiftly.
"I am going to take my time," Montanarelli said in an interview, noting that there is no statute of limitations on Maryland's law prohibiting the secret taping of telephone conversations. "The witnesses aren't going away."
He said he did not want to interfere with the federal investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "We'd be wanting the same witnesses and the same documents at the same time," he said. "This isn't just any federal investigation. It's one of the biggest in the nation and it involves the president of the United States. Why should a Maryland prosecutor intervene?"
McLendon is the elected prosecutor for the county where Tripp, a Columbia resident, reportedly taped many of her conversations with Lewinsky. McLendon said she passed the Maryland investigation to Montanarelli to avoid "any perception of a conflict of interest."
Pressured by Democratic leaders in both the county and the Maryland General Assembly to start an immediate investigation, she said her office "has been placed into an untenable position: Whatever we do or don't do will be subject to charges of political partisanship."
Montanarelli agreed to take over but said the investigation may be difficult because of two court rulings in 1995 that require proof that defendants in secret telephone taping cases know they are violating the law. Law enforcement officials said there have been few if any successful prosecutions since 1995.
The law, one of the toughest in the nation, permits the taping of telephone calls only with the consent of both parties or by court order in law enforcement actions.
Neither Tripp nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Montanarelli's office was created in 1977 by the General Assembly primarily to provide a state-level, nonelected prosecutor to pursue political corruption and related crimes. It is a relatively small office, operating on a $600,000 annual budget with three assistant prosecutors and two investigators. It also has limited powers to issue subpoenas and grant immunity from prosecution.
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