In Tripp Tape Transcripts
By Paul W. Valentine
While the nation waits today to peek at the first snippets of salacious gossip and White House intrigue in Linda R. Tripp's secretly recorded telephone conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky, Maryland investigators will be perusing them for something more elusive: evidence that Tripp violated the state's wiretap law.
They'll be looking for any indication from Tripp that she was talking to Lewinsky from her Columbia home and recording telephone calls there. But even if there are such comments in the transcripts, they may be of no legal use and would form only tentative pieces in the mosaic of a case against Tripp.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, whose office is conducting the investigation, said his case should instead be based on the original tapes or certified copies that could be admitted in a court proceeding. He would not say whether he has obtained such tapes.
Tripp turned over tapes to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr under a grant of immunity from prosecution, which has largely put them out of reach of other prosecutors, although they might be available elsewhere. Starr's staff also is trying to determine whether some of the tapes were tainted duplicates rather than originals.
Montanarelli concedes that to prove a wiretap violation under Maryland law, "you've got a hell of a road to go."
Working quietly in the shadow of the federal White House investigation, a grand jury under Montanarelli's guidance in suburban Howard County has been considering whether Tripp broke state law when she taped hours of conversations with Lewinsky without Lewinsky's consent.
If indicted and convicted on wiretap violations, Tripp, 48, could be imprisoned for up to five years and fined $10,000.
But any indictment is a long way off.
In addition to proving that Tripp knew she was breaking the law -- a legally complex burden requiring evidence of her "state of mind" while recording the conversations -- Montanarelli needs the tapes themselves.
They are the "corpus delicti," or fundamental substance of an investigation, Montanarelli said in an interview. Transcripts of the tapes, especially edited versions like those to be released today by the House Judiciary Committee, are only marginally useful, he said.
Tripp's lawyers argue that the grant of immunity to Tripp makes the tapes produced for the Lewinsky grand jury off-limits to Montanarelli in any form -- including whatever is released today.
Montanarelli would not say whether he has asked Starr's office for copies of the tapes. Starr's office did not return telephone calls on the question. A Judiciary Committee spokeswoman said she did not believe Montanarelli had requested any Tripp material from the committee.
"Our opinion is that any evidence produced as a result to [Tripp's] grant of immunity cannot be used by the state prosecutor in Maryland," said Joe Murtha, a Tripp attorney. "Whatever evidence he assembles has to be developed independently" of Starr's investigation.
Several specialists in immunity agree. Starr's material "would not be available to a nonfederal prosecutor," said George Beall, a former U.S. attorney in Maryland.
Even the planned release of the tapes to the general public by the Judiciary Committee later this year "does not lift the mantle of immunity from Linda Tripp," Murtha said.
There are other possible sources for the tapes, however, that are independent of Starr's investigation. Tripp confidante and New York literary agency Lucianne Goldberg, as well as other lawyers who represented Tripp earlier this year, for example, have had access to some of the tapes and may have duplicates in their possession. But even if they are available, they may lack the verifiable authenticity to make them admissible in court.
Montanarelli, 69, a career prosecutor whose office normally pursues public corruption cases, such as contract kickbacks and campaign finance abuse, agreed to take on the Tripp investigation after Howard County's state's attorney, Marna McLendon, a Republican, said she would be subjected to charges of "political partisanship," no matter how she handled it.
Republican activists howled that the probe was concocted by Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly to discredit Tripp as one of Starr's key witnesses against President Clinton. Montanarelli, a registered Democrat known for keeping his distance from party functions and fund-raising, denied he had succumbed to Democratic pressures.
Since activating the grand jury probe in August, Montanarelli has kept tight wraps on his activities, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.
His prosecutors and investigators arrive at the Howard County courthouse in Ellicott City sometimes as early as 7 a.m. to avoid news media representatives, and they are hoping to avert a media circus in the event Lewinsky or Goldberg is summoned to testify.
The 23-member grand jury, which includes at least two lawyers, has met about a half-dozen times in a cramped, low-ceiling basement room of the court building and heard testimony from a handful of witnesses.
In late August, Montanarelli scored a potentially important breakthrough on the sticky issue of Tripp's knowledge of Maryland's anti-wiretap law: RadioShack officials provided sales records showing she purchased a telephone recording device that included warnings that taping conversations without the consent of all parties "is illegal in some states."
In addition, two RadioShack employees at the Columbia store where Tripp bought the device testified before the grand jury. Their testimony was not disclosed, but RadioShack officials said at the time that it is company policy for employees to warn customers buying recording devices "that it is illegal to record someone without their consent in the state of Maryland."
Tripp has denied knowing about the law, and a source close to Tripp contended that the RadioShack evidence by itself does not establish her knowledge of the law.
"If . . . there is a RadioShack corporate policy of advising customers concerning the Maryland statute," the source said, "clearly in this instance company employees failed to observe that policy."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company