Howard prosecutors plan no action on Tripp tapes Columbia Democratic Club urges an investigation of phone call recordings

January 24, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF Sun staff researcher Robert Schrott contributed to this article.

A Columbia woman who secretly taped a White House intern's conversations about an alleged affair with President Clinton may have violated state law, but Howard County prosecutors apparently are not taking any action.

Howard County Deputy State's Attorney Les Gross said yesterday that the office had not received a formal complaint about Linda R. Tripp, a public affairs specialist at the Pentagon, who reportedly made 17 tapes of conversations with intern Monica Lewinsky -- most of them from her Columbia home, according to news reports.

"We've had no contact with anybody regarding any facts," Gross said, refusing to answer any questions about whether his office would investigate.

Illegal in Maryland

Under Maryland law, it is illegal for an individual to tape a conversation without the consent of the other person involved.

The crime -- which legal observers said is rarely prosecuted -- is a felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of $10,000 or both.

The state law, enacted in 1977, is stricter than federal law, which requires that one person consent to the recording.

Abe Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said prosecutors can initiate a criminal investigation on their own if they choose.

The Howard State's Attorney "just does not want to touch this with a 10-foot pole," Dash said after being told of Gross' statements.

"The tendency would be 'Let the feds finish the case and then we'll see,'" Dash said.

However, Dash said, the prosecutors would likely be obligated to investigate the situation if Lewinsky filed a complaint with the office. Her attorney, William H. Ginsburg, did not return calls yesterday.

Tripp's attorney, James Moody, could not be reached for comment.

But the Columbia Democratic Club sent a letter yesterday urging State's Attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican, to order a grand jury investigation.

James Kraft, president of the club and a local attorney, said the request was not partisan.

The group -- which held a special meeting Thursday -- was appalled at the apparent civil rights violation, Kraft said.

"This is completely contrary to our system of government," Kraft said. "If these people really believe in the American way of life why do they choose to act [like] the KGB?"

Whether Tripp could be found guilty of breaking the law is unclear.

University of Baltimore law professor Lynn McLain, pointing to Maryland Court of Special Appeals opinions, said Tripp could be cleared of criminal charges if she pleaded ignorance.

In a 1995 opinion, the court ruled that a person must know he or she is breaking the law to be held liable: "It is totally incorrect to say that ignorance of such law is no excuse or that everyone is presumed to know such law," a summation of the opinion reads.

"I don't think it is a commonly known fact" that it is illegal to tape record conversations in Maryland, McLain said.

Prosecution is uncommon

Legal observers said that cases of illegal wiretapping or recording are rarely prosecuted.

Such acts often occur in domestic cases where spouses tape each other in attempts to influence their divorce or custody case, only to find that the tape is inadmissible in court and was obtained by a possibly criminal act.

In such cases prosecutors might not press criminal charges because there is rarely any harm done, Kraft said.

In 1987, the Hagerstown police chief entered an Alford plea to charges that he planted a wiretap on an officer's phone because he was concerned information about police investigations was being leaked.

An Alford plea means the defendant does not admit guilt, but JTC concedes that he cannot disprove the state's case against him.

In another politically charged case involving tape recording, a Florida husband and wife were fined $500 each in April 1997 after admitting they recorded a cellular phone conversation between Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and other House Republicans when they were discussing sensitive political issues.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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