HOWARD COUNTY State's Attorney Marna McLendon's decision to hold off an investigation into possible criminal action by Linda R. Tripp in the White House sex scandal raises the question of whether she is up to the task.
Perhaps the thought of knocking heads with some of the most powerful figures in Washington appears intimidating to a prosecutor in a midsized suburban community. She would step into the middle of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's high-level investigation.
That investigation expanded into Ms. McLendon's bailiwick last month when it became public that Howard County was the locale for taped telephone conversations between Ms. Tripp and Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern whose voice is on the recordings.
The high stakes and political intrigue are enough to make the weak of heart steer clear of this affair. But Ms. McLendon can't. The high visibility of this case puts her on the spot. She's feeding the perception of a Republican prosecutor protecting a nemesis to the Democratic president. She must do more than promise to eventually investigate the matter if she is to instill confidence in her ability to enforce state laws in Howard County. She should begin looking into the matter now.
State criminal law makes it a felony to tape-record telephone conversations without the consent of the person being taped. Ms. Tripp's lawyer has acknowledged that his client recorded conversations with Ms. Lewinsky from Ms. Tripp's home in Columbia. This is all Ms. McLendon needs to start an investigation, but she has yet to contact lawyers for Ms. Tripp or Ms. Lewinsky.
Ms. McLendon is obligated to pursue this matter just as she was obligated to move forward with the prosecution of guards at the Howard County Detention Center against the wishes of the Republican administration of County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
She contends that it is standard operating procedure for local officials to wait until federal investigations end. But state and federal officials can conduct investigations concurrently.
If the Howard County state's attorney agreed with Mr. Starr to wait, she should not have. If she did not enter such an agreement, she is duty-bound to take the first step toward enforcing the laws she was elected to protect.
Pub Date: 2/04/98