Linda R. Tripp, a key figure in the investigation of President Clinton, was told a year ago that taping phone conversations without consent in Maryland was illegal, according to those familiar with testimony before a grand jury.
A RadioShack clerk who sold a recording device to Tripp and the manager of the store in the Mall in Columbia have testified before the Howard County grand jury, which is considering wiretapping charges against Tripp. Grand jurors also have reviewed records relating to the purchase of the device, RadioShack officials acknowledged yesterday.
The testimony and sales records are critical to the grand jury probe. To secure a conviction in Maryland, prosecutors must show that Tripp knew it was illegal to tape Monica Lewinsky without her consent.
Tripp used the recording device to tape nearly 20 hours of phone conversations with Lewinsky. Those tapes are now in the hands of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and have been a key part of his perjury and obstruction of justice investigation against Clinton.
RadioShack's parent company, the Tandy Corp., issued a brief statement yesterday in response to a series of inquiries from The Sun.
"Pursuant to a subpoena from the Maryland State Prosecutor, RadioShack has provided sales records of a recording device purchased by Linda Tripp," the statement says.
"A RadioShack store manager and sales associate were also subpoenaed and did testify before the Maryland grand jury. It is RadioShack's policy to inform customers who purchase recording devices that it is illegal to record someone without their consent in the state of Maryland."
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli declined to discuss the case yesterday.
Tripp's current lawyers, who have not acknowledged that she tape-recorded Lewinsky, did not respond to requests for an interview yesterday. Tripp did not respond to a letter seeking comment delivered to her home in Columbia.
But through a spokesman, Tripp denied that she was told it was illegal to secretly record phone conversations in Maryland. "This is hardly the first time that false statements have been made with regard to Ms. Tripp," the spokesman said yesterday. "Sadly, it probably won't be the last."
The taping episode began about a year ago, shortly after Newsweek magazine reported Aug. 11, 1997, that Tripp had witnessed an event related to the since-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case.
As an executive assistant in the White House counsel's office in 1993, Tripp told the magazine that she bumped into Kathleen Willey shortly after Willey had an encounter with the president.
Tripp said that Willey, a Clinton volunteer who later appeared on "60 Minutes" to proclaim that the president groped her near the Oval Office, appeared to be "disheveled" after the encounter.
"Her face was red and her lipstick was off," Tripp told Newsweek.
Responding to the account, Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett said that Tripp "was not to be believed." The remark prompted Tripp to consider documenting future encounters and taping her phone conversations, she has said.
At the time of the Bennett remark, Tripp was talking to Manhattan literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, trying to peddle a book that would look behind the scenes at the Clinton White House. Tripp was also in touch with Lewinsky, who was telling her tales of sex with the president.
After Bennett's remark, Goldberg told Tripp that if she ever planned to use the information from Lewinsky or had to testify about it, she better make sure she had proof.
Goldberg suggested that Tripp buy a recording device and a tape recorder, and start taping her conversations with Lewinsky. Tripp went to the Mall in Columbia and purchased a RadioShack Telephone Recording Control, according to those familiar with the probe and RadioShack.
The clerk who sold her the device testified before the grand jury that he told her it was illegal to use without first obtaining consent from the other party, according to those familiar with the case.
The store manager also testified before the panel, telling grand jurors that it is store policy to notify all customers purchasing recording devices that it is illegal to use them without prior consent.
The device that Tripp purchased also carries a warning on the back of the package.
"It is illegal in some states to record a conversation without the consent of all parties to the conversation," the warning says. "Check the laws in your area before using the Recording Control."
The warning is repeated on instructions accompanying the device.
Antoine Burrell, 21, who worked in the Columbia store at the time Tripp purchased the recording device, said in an interview last week that Tripp was told about the state wiretap statute.
"I know she was told," said Burrell, who still works for Radio-Shack. He declined to elaborate.