Lewinsky questioned on tapings

Maryland prosecutors present her answers to Tripp grand jury

Testimony critical to case

Experts say elusive tapes won't be needed to seek indictment

June 24, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

State prosecutors recently questioned Monica S. Lewinsky for the first time and presented her answers to a Howard County grand jury investigating possible illegal wiretapping by Linda R. Tripp, said sources familiar with the case.

Lewinsky's testimony is critical to the investigation, legal experts said, because she would likely testify that she did not know she was being taped by Tripp. That is an essential part of Maryland's law that bars taping others without their consent.

Even with Lewinsky's testimony, however, prosecutors apparently lack a key element of their case -- the tapes.

What prosecutors presented to the grand jury Friday from Lewinsky could not be determined, and State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli declined to discuss the investigation. He did say prosecutors were trying to end their work as soon as possible.

"We're trying to be as expeditious as we can," he said.

Lawyers for the former White House intern could not be reached for comment yesterday. On Friday, Nathaniel Speights, one of her attorneys, said he would not comment about whether Lewinsky had been questioned.

"I can't talk about it," Speights said. "She [Lewinsky] doesn't have any comment about the investigation at all."

Tripp's attorney, Joseph Murtha, said using evidence gathered from Lewinsky was expected.

"It was inevitable that Mr. Montanarelli would have to address the issue of Monica Lewinsky's involvement in the investigation," Murtha said. "It comes as no surprise that he obtained the information."

Tripp has admitted in federal grand jury testimony that she taped Lewinsky in 1997 after she was warned that doing so was illegal in Maryland.

Montanarelli has been seeking those tapes from a variety of sources -- Tripp's lawyers, friends and recently the federal judge overseeing the investigation of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Three weeks ago, Montanarelli called Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who helped persuade Tripp to tape the conversations with Lewinsky, Goldberg said.

Goldberg has appeared once before the grand jury and turned over tapes she made of conversations with Tripp.

Goldberg said Montanarelli asked whether she had read "page 203, or 302 or something" of Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff's book about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

"But I've just about erased most of this from my head," Goldberg said, referring to the Clinton scandal.

Not needed for indictment

Legal experts said that Montanarelli needs the tapes to build a strong case but probably doesn't need them to get an indictment, which requires evidence that Tripp likely violated Maryland law.

"He doesn't need the tapes for an indictment," said Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and former prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Going to trial could be risky if Montanarelli doesn't have the original tapes or certified copies.

"He better be loaded for bear," Dash said. "A good defense lawyer is going to show this was a political exercise and is going to ask, `Where's the tapes? Where's the evidence?' He's going to need those tapes."

End may be near

Experts said that Montanarelli probably orchestrated a deal with Lewinsky's defense attorneys to have her speak with prosecutors instead of signing an affidavit or being subpoenaed to appear.

The legal experts also suggested that the move to question Lewinsky and present that evidence to the grand jury Friday could mean the case is nearing an end because Lewinsky's statements are finally being presented.

They also said the amount of time that has passed -- a year -- suggests Montanarelli might be close to acting -- seeking an indictment or dropping the case.

Prosecutors sometimes use grand jury proceedings for months to investigate complex white-collar crimes to plug holes in their cases and bolster evidence for trial. But this investigation, experts said, is rather simple and doesn't require much evidence -- prosecutors need to show that taping occurred, Lewinsky didn't consent and Tripp knew it was illegal.

"It puzzles me that it's gone this long," Dash said. "It's possible he's hoping for a delay, hoping the passions will begin to ease. Then, he can come out and say there was no indictment and there wouldn't be a [hue and] cry against him. But I'm usually wrong about these things."

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