Linda Tripp calls Md. investigation bid to intimidate State prosecutor asks Howard grand jury to probe phone taping

'Politically motivated'

July 08, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Linda R. Tripp lashed out at the Maryland state prosecutor yesterday, saying that his launch of a grand jury investigation into her secret tape recordings was a politically motivated effort to "intimidate" her.

As Tripp testified for the third time before a federal grand jury here yesterday, the state prosecutor, Stephen Montanarelli, announced that he had asked a Howard County grand jury to investigate whether Tripp violated the state's wiretap law by secretly tape-recording conversations with her former friend and colleague Monica Lewinsky.

Montanarelli took his investigation last Thursday to the grand jury in Howard County, where Tripp lives and where, the state prosecutor said, "the alleged tape recordings took place."

Outside the federal courthouse, Anthony J. Zaccagnini, a lawyer for Tripp, said his client viewed Montanarelli's actions as "politically motivated and selective in nature."

"I believe today's announcement is the latest in a series of attempts to intimidate me," Tripp said in a statement read by her lawyer. "This is evidenced by the fact that this attempt occurs at the very moment I am testifying before the federal grand jury. I am not intimidated in any way."

James I. Cabezas, the state prosecutor's chief investigator, disputed Tripp's accusations and said her claims that his office was politically motivated and was trying to intimidate her were "absolutely not accurate."

Montanarelli, who was appointed 14 years ago by Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Democrat, and whose office generally investigates official misconduct, would not comment yesterday.

As recently as three weeks ago, Montanarelli denied a report that he had decided to investigate whether Tripp broke state law. He said then that he wanted to avoid interfering with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's inquiry in the Lewinsky matter.

But in a statement yesterday announcing his grand jury probe, Montanarelli said he no longer felt compelled to defer to Starr, "since Linda Tripp has testified before a grand jury."

Tripp's tapes sparked the investigation into allegations of sexual encounters and a cover-up that has dogged President Clinton for nearly half a year.

From her home in Columbia, Tripp reportedly taped 20 hours of phone conversation with Lewinsky, in which the former White House intern is said to describe a sexual relationship she was having with Clinton. Both the president and Lewinsky have denied in sworn statements that they had a sexual relationship.

In January, Tripp turned the tapes over to Starr and then, at Starr's direction, wore a hidden microphone as she met with Lewinsky at a hotel near the Pentagon.

Under Maryland law, it is a felony to tape a conversation without the consent of both parties. If found guilty, Tripp could face a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.

Judy Smith, a spokeswoman for Lewinsky, applauded the state's action. The investigation "will help establish that our cherished right of privacy should not be trampled on," Smith said.

Under an unusual aspect of the Maryland law, lawyers on both sides note, an offender cannot be convicted unless he or she knew that such secret taping was illegal.

Tripp's lawyers declined to say yesterday whether Tripp was aware that secret taping violated state law.

Joseph Murtha, another lawyer for Tripp, said the "heavy burden" for prosecutors of having to prove such knowledge of the law has made the prosecution of such cases "virtually unprecedented."

The high threshold was set by the state's Court of Special Appeals in 1995 in a civil case involving the secret wiretapping of a former Hagerstown police officer.

Those in the state prosecutor's office have acknowledged that there are several obstacles they will have to overcome, including that they do not have Tripp's tapes and are not likely to obtain them from Starr. In addition, subpoenas may have to be issued to out-of-state residents.

"There are going to be all sorts of legal gymnastics we're going to have to do because of where the evidence is," Cabezas said.

The investigator would not comment on whether any subpoenas have been issued by the 23-member grand jury that meets twice a month through September. Those expected to be key witnesses are Lucianne Goldberg, a New York book agent and Tripp confidant, and Lewinsky.

Tripp's lawyers said she had not been subpoenaed, and Cabezas said the "subject of an investigation" is rarely subpoenaed. But, he added, "It can be done."

Yesterday, Goldberg said in an interview that she not only urged Tripp to tape-record Lewinsky but also assured her friend that it was legal to do so in Maryland.

"A couple of people I checked with said it was fine," Goldberg said, acknowledging that her sources were not lawyers. "I was ill-advised."

In a phone conversation with Tripp that Goldberg taped from her home in New York -- where such secret taping is legal -- the book agent said, she told Tripp it was legal to secretly record calls in Maryland.

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