Ruling Sets Back Tripp Investigation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 1999; Page B2
In a ruling that Linda R. Tripp's lawyers say cripples Maryland's criminal investigation of her, a Maryland judge yesterday refused to make one of her former attorneys testify about secret recordings she made of telephone conversations with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
The ruling, in which the judge upheld the lawyer's claim of attorney-client privilege, marks the third time State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has failed to obtain testimony about the tapes or get copies of key recordings. For the last seven months, a grand jury has been investigating whether Tripp violated Maryland law by taping the conversations in which Lewinsky detailed her sexual relationship with President Clinton.
Maryland wiretap law prohibits the recording of a telephone conversation without the consent of both parties. Tripp has said she recorded more than 25 conversations with Lewinsky from her home in Columbia in the latter half of 1997. If indicted and convicted, Tripp could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
Montanarelli subpoenaed Tripp's former attorney, James A. Moody, believing that Tripp had told Moody that she had taped at least two conversations with Lewinsky after she had been warned that doing so was illegal.
Moody told reporters yesterday outside Howard County Circuit Court that the ruling by Judge James B. Dudley is important because it preserves the traditional confidential relationship between attorney and client.
Moody said Montanarelli told Dudley in a closed hearing yesterday that Moody was a "key" or "essential" witness for the grand jury. But now that he cannot be compelled to testify, Moody said, "we would infer that they no longer have a case against Linda."
"We would hope it would end soon; it's time to move on," said Joseph Murtha, one of Tripp's current attorneys.
Montanarelli, reached later, said that the ruling does not affect his investigation and that the probe is continuing. "It is not winding down or coming to an end," he said.
Montanarelli's office, which has been pursuing the Tripp case since July, failed twice earlier to obtain originals or copies of two crucial tapes that Tripp made late in 1997 after attorneys warned her that such "unconsented" taping was illegal in Maryland.
A neighbor of Tripp's subpoenaed by the grand jury in November reportedly produced no tapes, and literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, a Tripp confidante, surrendered what she told reporters were copies of the earliest five or six tapes, but they were made well before Tripp learned that the taping was illegal.
Prosecutors must prove a suspect was aware that taping was against the law.
Montanarelli's probe has been further stymied by the fact that Tripp was granted immunity from prosecution by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr before she testified before a federal grand jury last summer about making the tapes. That has forced Montanarelli to seek the tapes and information about them from independent sources.
Montanarelli contended in court papers filed for yesterday's hearing that Moody was no longer entitled to invoke attorney-client confidentiality because Tripp had disclosed the contents of the tapes to an unnamed "third party." In transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, Montanarelli pressed Moody about whether he provided originals or copies of tapes to Newsweek magazine reporter Michael Isikoff, who has written extensively about them.
"Moody's knowledge of the disposition of the tape recordings made by Tripp," Montanarelli argued, "is essential to the state's burden to prove that Tripp illegally taped conversations with Monica Lewinsky after Tripp had knowledge of the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Statute."
Moody countered in separate papers that forcing him to disclose information given him in confidence by Tripp would "undermine and chill" attorney-client relationships elsewhere and "launch an open hunting season" on defense lawyers by prosecutors. Doing so would "make it especially difficult for controversial or unpopular clients or clients with truly interesting secrets to seek the necessary advice and counsel," he said.
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