Tripp Bracing for Wiretapping Indictment
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 1999; Page B1 The Maryland prosecutor who initiated a wiretapping investigation of Linda R. Tripp has scheduled a news conference for today, and Tripp's attorney said he anticipates his client will be indicted for illegally recording telephone conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon planned the news conference for the same day that a grand jury investigating Tripp meets again. That grand jury investigation is being conducted by Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who was asked by McLendon to look into the allegations against Tripp. Both prosecutors refused to comment on why the news conference was scheduled.
Tripp's lawyer, Joseph Murtha, said he is proceeding under the assumption that Tripp will be indicted today for violating Maryland's wiretapping law when she secretly recorded her phone conversations with Lewinsky from her Columbia home in late 1997.
"In light of the length of the investigation and the effort put forth by the state prosecutor, we anticipate that they will seek an indictment," Murtha said. "We're proceeding that way and are planning a vigorous defense."
Such an investigation would normally have been conducted by McLendon, but the elected Republican was accused of political partisanship by state Democratic legislators. The case was transferred in February 1998 to Montanarelli, an appointed Democrat. Any indictment handed down by the grand jury would be handled by McLendon, who could decide to prosecute it herself or let Montanarelli do so.
Tripp's covert tapes triggered the investigation of President Clinton, a process that transfixed and fatigued the nation for more than a year and eventually led to the president's impeachment.
Until recently, it appeared that Montanarelli's investigation was hampered by his inability to produce the one piece of evidence necessary for a wiretapping prosecution: the original tapes or authenticated copies. In exchange for Tripp's cooperation with the investigation of Clinton, Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr gave Tripp broad legal immunity that prevents any prosecutor, federal or state, from obtaining the tapes.
But recently the Baltimore Sun reported that Montanarelli obtained the tapes through the intervention of U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who presided over the Clinton investigation.
Tripp's lawyer said that he has not been informed by Starr's office that the tapes have been turned over to Montanarelli or that Tripp has lost her immunity. Murtha said yesterday that if his client is indicted, he plans to argue that the tapes remain covered by the immunity agreement and cannot be used.
On June 16, Montanarelli interviewed Lewinsky for three hours in a Washington law office. She confirmed that she did not give Tripp permission to tape their conversations, according to sources close to Lewinsky. A transcript of the interview was given to the grand jury a week later.
If Tripp is indicted, Lewinsky will almost certainly be called to testify – opening her to cross-examination by Tripp's lawyers. A source close to Lewinsky said yesterday that her lawyers had not been notified by Montanarelli about an indictment or about the possibility of a subpoena for Lewinsky.
Montanarelli has spent months trying to get the tapes. Last November he called before the grand jury a neighbor of Tripp's, but she reportedly produced no tapes. Days earlier, literary agent and former Tripp confidante Lucianne Goldberg handed over what she said were copies of tapes made months before Tripp learned such taping was illegal – a crucial distinction that makes them of little use to Montanarelli.
Maryland law requires Montanarelli to not only provide the original tapes and show that Lewinsky did not consent to the taping but also to show that Tripp secretly recorded her conversations despite knowing it was illegal.
Of the 27 tapes Tripp gave to Starr's office, she admitted before a federal grand jury that two of them, recorded in late December 1997, were made after she had been warned by lawyers that covert phone taping is illegal in Maryland. Tripp told the grand jury that she saw 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 the choice was clear. I needed to protect myself," she said.
If Tripp is indicted and convicted, she could face a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Even if Montanarelli asks for an indictment today, it must be approved by a majority of the 23 grand jurors before being forwarded to McLendon for prosecution. She has 45 days to decide whether she will prosecute or hand it back to Montanarelli.