Federal prosecutors announced today that the former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party has been indicted on felony charges of eavesdropping on Democratic conference calls, reviving a political feud that helped demolish bipartisan cooperation last year.
Edmund A. Matricardi III, 34, who resigned his Virginia GOP post in April following his indictment here on similar state charges, resigned his new position with the South Carolina Republican Party this afternoon after U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty announced the latest indictment alleging violations of the U.S. Wiretap Act.
Matricardi "knowingly, intentionally and unlawfully intercepted a wire communication in violation of federal law," McNulty said at a news conference in his Richmond office. "Mr. Matricardi was aware the conversations he listened to were ones in which the parties had an expectation of privacy."
Matricardi, who did not dispute earlier charges that he listened in on two Democratic conference calls in March, was indicted on five counts of violating the wiretap statute, McNulty said. Each count carries a maximum of five years in prison, $250,000 in fines and three years of supervised release.
McNulty also announced that Claudia D. Tucker, who had been chief of staff to former House of Delegates speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge for "secretly listening" to one of the conference calls.
Tucker was fined $1,000 and sentenced to one year of probation and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, McNulty said. Tucker did not respond to messages left at her Amherst home, and Wilkins declined to comment, saying, "I'm out of that business now."
At his news conference, McNulty shed no light on the prosecutorial strategy in indicting Matricardi on charges similar to those the state eventually abandoned last spring. Asked whether the eavesdropping inquiry was continuing, McNulty said only that his office had "concluded a very lengthy investigation" and left the door open to other avenues of investigation.
McNulty, a Republican whose Eastern District stretches from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads, said the latest Matricardi prosecution was an important part of his caseload, which includes terrorist prosecutions in federal court in Alexandria. The prosecutor said his office had a responsibility to enforce laws designed to protect telephone communications.
"This case involves an important public interest," McNulty said. "The public must have confidence that their conversations on the telephone are secure."
Matricardi declined to comment when reached at his South Carolina office. His attorney, Stephen D. Benjamin of Richmond, said he was baffled by the indictment and its timing, nearly 10 months after the state indictment and in the middle of the annual General Assembly session.
"The government's professed interest in protecting our privacy is a strained justification for federal involvement in a relatively minor event," Benjamin said. "I can't for the life of me figure out the timing. I am concerned it will disrupt the important nonpartisan work of our governor and General Assembly."
The latest Matricardi indictment and Tucker's guilty plea threatened to reopen wounds between the parties that never fully healed after a court battle over a GOP redistricting plan and the first revelations of Republican eavesdropping on telephone meetings that Democrats held to plot political and legal strategy.
Republicans, who were put on the defensive first by the eavesdropping controversy and then by a sexual harassment scandal that toppled Wilkins in the summer, sought to maintain some distance from today's developments.
"This clearly is a legal matter and not a political matter," said Shawn M. Smith, a state GOP spokesman. "These people resigned their previous positions last year and no longer have any association with the Republican Party of Virginia."
That hardly satisfied Democrats, who urged McNulty to be aggressive in his pursuit of Matricardi and any associates in the eavesdropping. They seized on a portion of the indictment that said Matricardi "disclosed the contents of the intercepted March 22 Democratic conference call to a Republican legislator and his chief of staff." Democrats said that referred to Tucker and the former speaker -- the only lawmaker with a chief of staff -- even if the indictment did not mention them by name.
"We said this was criminal from the get-go," said Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "We still need to get to the bottom of it."
As for Tucker, Moran added: "She listened in at someone's direction, and the speaker was her direct supervisor. That's just connecting the dots."
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who participated in one of the intercepted calls, said through his press secretary that he wanted "to see what the ultimate decision of the court is."
A judge in U.S. District Court in Richmond is expected to issue a summons to Matricardi within days so that he may be arraigned here on the charges.