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Md. Prosecutor Won't Pursue Tripp Until Investigation Conclusion

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page A20

Maryland's top prosecutors yesterday endorsed the Howard County state's attorney's decision not to immediately investigate whether Linda R. Tripp violated a strict state wiretapping law when she recorded phone calls in which former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky allegedly described a sexual affair with President Clinton.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli advised Howard State's Attorney Marna McLendon (R) last Sunday not to pursue a case against Tripp, who taped calls to Lewinsky from her Columbia home, until federal investigators concluded a wide-ranging probe. He told McLendon, who has come under fire from state and county Democrats for not pursuing a figure at the center of a scandal with partisan dimensions, that she should not proceed without the tapes or evidence that Tripp knew she was breaking the law by making them.

"I advised her that she was doing the right thing by waiting," said Montanarelli, who was appointed to the nonpartisan post charged with investigating official corruption in 1984. "This should defer to the federal investigation. People disagree, but [McLendon] doesn't have a case."

McLendon, a first-term prosecutor, has said she may revisit the case once independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has finished his investigation into whether Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky and pressured her to lie about it.

Meanwhile, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) confirmed that members of his staff spoke with McLendon last Sunday. Citing common protocol in which local agencies defer to federal investigators, Curran said, "The better course for now [is] to let the federal grand jury proceed unless other facts turn up."

He added: "There's a lot of things that go into this. It's not just, 'It happened in Maryland, so we should jump in.' "

The prosecutors spoke yesterday, one day after a federal grand jury in Washington questioned Robert Weiner, spokesman for the White House drug policy office, about phone calls he made to a Howard Democrat who is calling for Tripp's prosecution. Federal investigators are examining whether the White House suggested that those calls be made.

Montanarelli and Curran said the 21-year-old electronic surveillance law, which requires that both parties agree to a taped phone call, is rarely prosecuted. Furthermore, the Maryland Court of Appeals made it difficult to do so by ruling in 1996 that prosecutors must prove that someone accused of taping a call without permission knew that doing so violates the law.

"I don't think there's any knowledge that [Tripp] knew the Maryland law," Montanarelli said. "The prosecutor has to have that evidence going in, or it will be dismissed."

Those comments probably will do little to calm the waters in Howard, which has been roiling with partisan politics since Tripp's secret tape recordings made national headlines last month. The scandal has exposed a variety of ties binding the suburban enclave of 232,000 to Washington and given small-time party functionaries supporting roles in propping up or attacking the president.

James Kraft, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, implored McLendon last month to investigate Tripp's tape recordings. When McLendon said she would defer to Starr's investigation, Kraft reiterated his call, and last week more than 40 state legislators joined him.

"The actions we have taken have to do with a potential violation of Maryland law and not with the allegations themselves," Kraft said. "It gives us an opportunity vicariously to show that Ken Starr doesn't care if people break the laws. All he cares about is bringing down the president."

Weiner, who lives in Prince George's County, said he called Kraft last Sunday to offer congratulations on his stand. Weiner's wife, Patricia Berg, is a former member of the Columbia Democratic Club, and Weiner met Kraft through her.

But several things have changed since then: Kraft no longer lives in Columbia, and the person Weiner called to get Kraft's new number, Wanda Hurt, is no longer a Democrat but a Republican running for the Howard County Council.

Within 48 hours, Weiner received a subpoena to appear before Starr's grand jury. Weiner said he was asked about the plans of the Columbia Democratic Club before his attorney objected to the questioning.

"This was a personal call to my wife's and my friends from our own home, on our own time and on our own nickel," Weiner said. "This shows how the office of the independent counsel is grasping at straws."

Hurt has said that Weiner's call was about pressuring McLendon.

"He's a Democrat, and they are trying to help their president," said Hurt, who changed parties in 1995. "We are doing absolutely nothing. Why should we? We are pretty far down the food chain."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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