By Daniel LeDuc
Standing up at the end of the morning proceedings, Republican Whip Robert L. Flanagan (Howard) condemned a letter from House Democrats urging the prosecution of Linda R. Tripp for covertly taping Lewinsky's reported descriptions of an affair with President Clinton.
Although that might have irritated the Democrats enough, Flanagan's comment that some of them might have signed the letter "without thinking" sparked hissing in the usually decorous House. As the gavel came down, Democrats all but lunged toward Flanagan's front-row desk to chastise him for criticizing them.
Del. Gilbert J. Genn (D-Montgomery) raced down the aisle to yell at Flanagan.
"It's a slam dunk felony violation," he said angrily. "It's not going to impact on the federal case, because there's been a clear-cut violation."
Del. Leon G. Billings (D-Montgomery) used a few words that usually would describe chicken excrement as he told Flanagan that his comments smacked of "partisan . . . politics."
The verbal altercation on the House floor was only the latest instance of the controversy surrounding President Clinton spilling into state politics. Tripp, who lives in Columbia, tape-recorded Lewinsky talking about the president without her knowledge.
Maryland law prohibits the taping of a phone conversation without the consent of the person being taped. Punishment includes a maximum prison sentence of five years and a $10,000 fine.
Last week, 49 House Democrats sent a letter urging Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon to prosecute Tripp for taping her conversations with Lewinsky in what they said was an apparent violation of Maryland law. McLendon, a Republican, had said she would defer a decision on prosecuting Tripp until after independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr completes his investigation.
The House Democrats said in their letter that McLendon's "failure to initiate action against Ms. Tripp could be interpreted as a partisan decision. There is no place for partisan politics within our criminal justice system."
But McLendon said that it was the Democrats' letter that appears politically motivated. She said she would "absolutely" consider such a prosecution after completion of Starr's inquiry. Maryland's Democratic attorney general and independent state prosecutor have endorsed McLendon's approach.
Standing in the House yesterday, Flanagan defended McLendon.
"Politicians asking for prosecutions, and prosecutors acting on those requests -- I think you have opened the door to a police state," said Flanagan. "I think many of you signed that letter without thinking."
After that comment, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) warned, "The gentleman is very close to being out of order."
Flanagan plunged ahead, however, saying sarcastically, "Maybe we would like to form a committee on criminal prosecutions and send lists to all the state's attorneys around the state with names of people that should be prosecuted."
House Democrats were furious at Flanagan for chiding them in a way they felt violated the polite protocol of the House.
"It's like we're children without any judgment," Del. Mary Louise Preis (D-Harford) said as she and other Democrats gathered around Flanagan's desk on the House floor. "I'm insulted." Preis did not actually sign the original letter to the Howard state's attorney.
Flanagan, who had tipped reporters that he planned to say something at the end of the session, was unrepentant. "Their reaction was more intense than I expected," he said.
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