Md. probe of tapings will await Clinton case Howard state's attorney defers to Starr's office

January 27, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon said yesterday that she will investigate whether Linda R. Tripp broke Maryland law when she secretly taped telephone conversations with a former White House intern, but only after the federal investigation into President Clinton ends.

"We will definitely revisit this when the federal investigation concludes," said McLendon.

She said she decided to hold off looking into Tripp's apparent violation of Maryland's strict wiretap law because an inquiry now would interfere with the investigation by the independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr. In cases such as this, state investigators often defer to the federal authorities, McLendon added.

Tripp's attorney has confirmed that his client made the tapes from the phone in her Columbia home. The tapes contain allegations of a sexual relationship between the former intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, 24, and President Clinton and a subsequent attempt to cover it up.

Under Maryland law, it is a felony for an individual to tape a conversation without the consent of the person being taped, although the crime is rarely prosecuted.

According to Tripp's lawyer, Starr has granted Tripp immunity from prosecution under the Maryland law.

"If there weren't a taping problem, I wouldn't have done it," the attorney, James Moody, said last week.

McLendon disputed Starr's authority to offer that protection yesterday. "I don't believe Starr would have jurisdiction to grant any state immunity," she said.

Abe Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland, agreed with McLendon's assessment.

"The feds can only give immunity in a federal investigation," Dash said. "There's no way in which he [Starr] could prevent a state's attorney from doing something if they wanted to."

Starr's spokeswoman, Debbie Gershman, would not comment on whether Tripp was granted immunity. Moody could not be reached for comment yesterday.

McLendon, who said she consulted with state authorities before deciding to delay an investigation, said she told Starr's office of her decision yesterday.

"Their response was they thought that was fine, they appreciate that," McLendon said.

The crime is 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.

McLendon's office has come under pressure to investigate Tripp. On Friday, the Columbia Democratic Club sent her a letter urging her to begin a grand jury investigation. Yesterday, her office received at least 12 calls from people around the country, she said.

James Kraft, president of the Democratic club, said he was not surprised by McLendon's decision to hold off. But he and another local Democrat said they were concerned that the charges might go unaddressed. McLendon is a Republican.

"We believe it is still worthy of an independent investigation by her office," Kraft said.

Said Del. Frank S. Turner, an east Columbia Democrat: "I hope that she follows through on her promise to investigate the matter."

Turner, who sits on the state House Judiciary Committee, said his committee has rejected bills in the past two years to amend the wiretapping law. The thought behind the law, he said, is that if someone needs to record somebody else without that person's knowledge, he can ask a judge to grant permission to do so.

"We just don't want people to be running around here recording people, setting up people for recording," Turner said.

It may prove difficult to prosecute Tripp successfully, nevertheless. McLendon said a previous court decision indicates that defendants must know the law existed in order to be convicted of breaking it. Short of a confession, the case could be hard to prove, she said.

"I don't think most Maryland residents would know" about the law, McLendon said.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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