Panel begins Tripp case Grand jury testimony is in Md. investigation of tape recordings

'Interesting and exciting'

Extra security used around courthouse amid media onslaught

August 07, 1998|By Caitlin Francke and Dana Hedgpeth | Caitlin Francke and Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

A Howard County grand jury heard the first testimony yesterday in the investigation of Columbia resident Linda R. Tripp, whose tape recordings of former White House aide Monica Lewinsky are at the heart of a possible presidential scandal.

As a portion of the media spotlight that follows every aspect of this saga shone on Ellicott City, James I. Cabezas, chief investigator for State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, testified before the grand jury for about an hour, according to sources. What he said was not known.

Tripp is being investigated for possibly breaking Maryland's strict wiretap law when she taped telephone calls in her home with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, discussing an alleged affair with President Clinton.

It is illegal in Maryland to tape a conversation without the consent of the other person involved. The crime is a felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of $10,000 or both.

Montanarelli refused to discuss the case as he left the county courthouse about noon, using a back door to avoid a media contingent that crowded the entrance. With him were Cabezas and Thomas M. McDonough, assistant state prosecutor. Montanarelli arrived at the courthouse about 7 a.m., courthouse employees said.

"I cannot tell you anything about the grand jury," Montanarelli said. It is against the law to discuss grand jury proceedings, he said, adding "I don't intend to break the law."

The case was quite a change for the courthouse, off Rogers Avenue in historic Ellicott City, where assault and divorce cases are the staples.

As employees entered the stone building, they were greeted by more than two dozen uniformed sheriff's deputies and county police officers and about 15 national and local reporters with television satellite transmitters and video cameras.

"I've never seen so many sheriff's deputies in one place," said Barbara Geller, a clerk in the Register of Wills office. "It's all very interesting and exciting. You never know what's going to happen or who's going to show up."

Joseph Tauber, an Ellicott City attorney, had to sit outside one of the police checkpoints to meet a client because he was worried that his client would be overwhelmed by the activity.

"It's kind of unusual for Howard County to have this much going on," he said. "Howard County thinks of itself as a rural, sedate place on any given day. This is something we've never experienced."

The Tripp case made its way to the Howard courthouse on a long, circuitous path.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon passed off the investigation in February to Montanarelli, saying that she did not want the case to get trapped in politics. Montanarelli initially said he would investigate when the federal grand jury had finished.

Yesterday's testimony in the wiretap case took place as Lewinsky faced a grand jury in Washington.

To convict Tripp, prosecutors must prove that she knew she was committing an illegal act. Two Maryland appellate court decisions in 1995 and 1996 established ignorance of the law as a defense. Tripp's current lawyers have not acknowledged that she taped Lewinsky.

The grand jury proceedings are being taped at the request of Tripp's lawyers.

Circuit Judge James B. Dudley, who signed the July 22 order allowing the taping, said Montanarelli's office did not object.

Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo said he met with Montanarelli this week to go over what he called the "special operation" to bring in prosecutors and witnesses.

"Because of the importance of this case, we had to have a plan," Chiuchiolo said. "We have to protect the jurors, the witnesses and keep the media at a reasonable distance."

Five checkpoints -- three outside the courthouse with barricades and two inside blocking off the grand jury room -- were set up at 7 a.m.

A laminated poster of an order, signed by Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., rested outside the metal detector warning patrons to turn off beepers, cellular telephones and computers. Yellow crime-scene tape blocked the main stairwell to the grand jury room.

"This is a good shakedown," Chiuchiolo said, as he watched people flow through the security checkpoints.

In a memorandum detailing the increased security measures that was sent to courthouse employees this week, workers were warned to display their rarely worn identification badges and arrive early to secure parking.

Protecting against the possibility of bomb threats, a county Fire Department bus stood by to evacuate grand jurors; in another security precaution, courthouse mail was sorted by sheriff's deputies.

Local prosecutors were told in repeated e-mails to escort any visitors to the front entrance and to close the doors to their offices when talking to visitors.

One courthouse employee said he has received about a half-dozen calls a day from television networks trying to catch a glimpse of potential star witness Lewinsky.

"This is the little, old country courthouse here," said the employee, who asked not to be identified, as he joked with his co-workers about the possibility of Lewinsky testifying. "I see Monica on TV every night."

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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