A most timely case of expertise A Baltimore attorney's knowledge of privacy law lands him a role in the debate over Linda Tripp

Catching up with: Paul Mark Sandler

August 09, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Paul Mark Sandler is a wiry man who favors seersucker suits and big bow ties, one of those slight men whose metabolic motor seems ever at a high idle and whose mind, especially when deployed in a courtroom, is like a prehensile appendage, a monkey's tail capable of grasping and holding fast to the heart of the issue at hand.

He is attentive, a little ceremonious, a touch pedantic. He is 53, and still all lit up by contemplation of the law.

Joseph H.H. Kaplan, chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court, describes him as one of "maybe two" lawyers who have appeared before him in the past 21 years who quotes classical authors like Shakespeare and Plato, and who makes strategic reference to ineffable principles.

Kaplan had Sandler in his court about 12 years ago in a contempt hearing to determine if Sandler's client, Jeffrey Levitt of the Old Court Savings and Loan scandal, had exceeded his court-imposed limit for personal spending.

"Paul said, 'Judge, the people want you to do justice,' " Kaplan recalls. "I said, 'Mr. Sandler, if I did what the people want me to do, your client would be hanging from the flagpole outside this building.'"

So it doesn't always work; Sandler takes these little jolts better than most attorneys.

"He responds coolly," says fellow lawyer Ron Shapiro. "He is smart enough to know the people who run the courtroom. He takes nothing personally."

Sandler is known widely in Maryland legal and political circles. He has a heavyweight client list. He defended Levitt for fraud, but couldn't keep him out jail. He defended Cal Ripken Jr.'s dad for driving under the influence, and did keep him out of jail. He defends the mayor of Baltimore whenever somebody hales him into court.

Sandler also is famously familiar with the ramifications of the Maryland law that prohibits the willful recording or disclosing of the conversation of another person without that person's knowledge or permission.

That statute was approved in 1977 and was modeled on the surveillance law within the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1968. The Maryland law, however, more stringently protects citizens' privacy: It makes taping or otherwise recording a conversation illegal unless everyone involved in the conversation has consented.

"One-party consent is permissible in federal law," says Stephen Montanarelli, Maryland's special prosecutor.

Sandler's knowledge of the statute has recently brought him a wider fame. Now that Montanarelli is investigating Linda R. Tripp for possibly breaking this law by clandestinely taping from her Columbia home her confessional chats with Monica Lewinsky, Sandler has been invited onto various Washington-based talk shows to explain what the law is all about.

These can be hostile venues, especially when loaded with people unfriendly to the president. But Sandler, who in addition to litigating for the defense, writing books useful to lawyers and running seminars and workshops on the Socratic method in his spare time (ha!), has proved an effective foil against more politically animated journalists and commentators.

On a recent broadcast of the CNN show "Crossfire," Sandler managed to deflect heavy innuendoes by the conservative columnist Robert Novak to the effect that Montanarelli's investigation of Tripp is politically motivated.

Why? Because it is being carried out by a prosecutor who is a Democrat, in a majority Democratic state, a state with some undeniable political corruption in its history. A state that Novak // felt the need to announce he moved out of some time ago.

Sandler defended Maryland's reputation with only a minimum of hyperbole, made the point that Montanarelli is obliged by the law to investigate, since the Tripp case was handed over to him by Howard County's Republican state's attorney, and told Novak and everybody else who might have been watching the show that Maryland is improved since Novak departed.

The Baltimore lawyer has a low opinion of Washington.

"It is a place that has a habit of chasing its own tail," he says, then refers to the campaign-finance hearings conducted last year by Republican Sen. Fred Thompson.

"It went on for weeks, spent millions of dollars and never resulted in a change in the law."

He has much the same opinion of Kenneth Starr's efforts in the Lewinsky case. He thinks this "tempest in a teapot would have been best left alone."

Paul Mark Sandler is obviously a busy man; his mind has many demands on it. Thus, to reach some level of mental tranquillity, he retires to his Baltimore County farm, rides big horses, jumps high fences and chases little foxes. The need to concentrate on "staying alive" while thus engaged clears the mind, he says.

He has been married to the same woman for 20 years and announces that fact proudly. She is Margaret Batten from Newfoundland. They have two grown sons.

Among Sandler's other diversions is the blues harmonica, which he plays with such skill that he has been known to get his neighbors' dogs to join in.

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