Wiretapping controversy feuls Va. politicians' feud

June 12, 1991|By B. Drummond Ayres Jr. | B. Drummond Ayres Jr.,N.Y. Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Saying that "decisive steps are required," Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia put three top aides on leave yesterday pending resolution of his feud with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder over telephone eavesdropping.

The Democratic lawmaker, in a statement released last night by his office, identified the aides as David K. McCloud, his administrative assistant; Steven D. Johnson, his press secretary; and Robert Watson, political director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which Mr. Robb heads.

The senator said the aides would continue to be paid but would not be involved in office affairs until he learns what role, if any, they played in the eavesdropping episode. He also said he would seek "outside assistance" in conducting his investigation, but he did not elaborate.

Political sources in Washington and Virginia said Mr. Robb had asked attorney Charles T. Manatt, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to help him deal with the controversy, the Associated Press reported.

"The people of Virginia have been subjected to a rash of stories about their state and federal governmentrepresentatives that have caused them legitimate concern," Mr. Robb said.

"I am taking what steps I can to reassure them."

Mr. Robb and Mr. Wilder have been at political odds for more than a decade, with both seeking to become the pre-eminent Democrat in Virginia.

More recently, both have indicated that they might jump into the 1992 presidential contest.

The feud has intensified in recent weeks, ever since Mr. Robb charged that Mr. Wilder had ordered the state police to investigate his personal life, and Mr. Wilder countered that Mr. Robb obtained tapes of his confidential calls on his car phone and then disclosed them to other politicians and the press.

Some of the state's Democratic leaders, as well as some national party leaders, worry that the feud may end up hurting both men politically and may hurt the state party itself. They have expressed disappointment at the barbed level of discourse between the two men and have questioned their political judgment as well as the judgment of their advisers and aides.

In a related development yesterday, Mr. Robb's office disclosed thathe had sent a letter to Mr. Wilder late Monday warning of long-term political damage. He suggested that they have a meeting and declare a truce.

Mr. Wilder, asserting that he was "a victim of a crime," replied yesterday that he wanted to reflect a bit on his differences with Mr. Robb before holding any meeting, though he did not rule one out -- as long as the senator journeyed to Richmond for it. The governor is winding up atrade mission to Europe and issued the statement through his office.

Mr. Wilder has denied ever ordering any police investigation into Mr. Robb's personal life, which has been the subject of untold rumors and numerous news reports.

As for Mr. Wilder's charge about the taped phone conversations, Mr. Robb has denied leaking any tapes of Mr. Wilder's private conversations, though he has acknowledged receiving a tape from an anonymous source in 1989. He has said it remained in a file cabinet until an aide destroyed it a few weeks ago.

Mr. Robb said it was destroyed when the feud between him and Mr. Wilder escalated anew, but he would not address why it was not destroyed sooner, nor would he address rumors that some of his aides had leaked transcripts of the confidential conversation.

Federal and state law prohibits the interception and disclosure by third parties of calls from cellular phones.

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