State to get Tripp tapes

Judge orders Starr to release recordings of Monica Lewinsky

Key obstacle removed

Lawyers argue that immunity grant covers conversations

June 26, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A federal judge has directed independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to give state prosecutors tape recordings Linda R. Tripp made of her conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky, removing a major obstacle to the prosecution of Tripp on wiretapping charges.

The order came recently in response to a request for the tapes from State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, sources familiar with the case said. His investigation of the longtime Columbia resident has been frustrated by his inability to obtain at least copies of the tapes, which Tripp provided to Starr after he granted her immunity in his investigation of President Clinton.

"If [Montanarelli] decides to bring the case, the evidence is pretty clear," said Gerard E. Lynch, a law professor at Columbia University School of Law. "The rest will be decided later on."

Montanarelli's investigation received another apparent boost last week when, sources said, state prosecutors questioned Lewinsky at their Baltimore office and presented her responses to a Howard County grand jury June 18.

Montanarelli refused yesterday to comment on the case, saying, "The less I say, the better." It could not be determined when U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversees Starr's investigation, signed the order, or when Montanarelli might obtain the tapes.

An official in Starr's office also declined to comment yesterday.

Tripp's attorney, Joseph Murtha, said, "I don't believe that there is any value to Mr. Montanarelli's investigation to obtain the tapes in the custody of the office of the independent counsel. We firmly believe that the law does not permit Mr. Montanarelli to use that information [obtained during] a federal grand jury investigation."

"We believe the immunity agreement entered into with the office of independent counsel precludes the state prosecutor's office from even making use of that information," Murtha added.

Tripp's attorneys could argue that the tapes' contents are protected by her immunity agreement with Starr, legal experts said. That issue would be decided during pretrial hearings.

Other legal experts questioned the propriety of using the tapes, given the immunity agreement.

"It probably wouldn't be unconstitutional but it would be unethical," said Byron L. Warnken, a law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Since taking over the investigation from Howard County State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon last July, Montanarelli's office has questioned Tripp's friends, associates and even her lawyers. He subpoenaed former Tripp attorney James Moody to answer questions and produce tapes, but a Howard County judge ruled that Moody did not have to answer those questions.

To prove his case, Montanarelli must also establish that Tripp knew that taping is illegal in Maryland without the consent of all parties.

Tripp taped conversations with Lewinsky from her home. Those tapes detail in often explicit terms the relationship Lewinsky had with Clinton -- and the young woman's relationship with her supposed confidante and friend, Tripp.

Lewinsky almost discovered Tripp's taping scheme when she heard strange noises on the line during one conversation, according to a transcript. "You know what's really weird? I keep hearing these double clicks," Lewinsky said. "That's my gum," Tripp responded.

A Radio Shack clerk testified last year before the grand jury that employees warned Tripp about Maryland's wiretapping law when she purchased a recording device at The Mall in Columbia, sources said.

Violators of the law can be jailed up to five years and fined $10,000.

Montanarelli's office sought the tapes from Starr after the independent counsel's investigation ended, sources said.

The Lewinsky-Clinton scandal erupted in January 1998, after Tripp began circulating information about their affair she learned from Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Eventually, Tripp handed over her tapes to Starr, who forced Lewinsky to cooperate to avoid perjury charges.

Tripp testified before Starr's grand jury several times and said she had been warned that taping was illegal in Maryland but recorded Lewinsky anyway in late 1997.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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