Tripp may face charges

Prosecution to announce end of investigation

`There will be a conclusion'

Experts say tapes may not be needed for a conviction

July 30, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A yearlong investigation of alleged illegal wiretapping by Linda R. Tripp appears to be drawing to a close with the expected final meeting today of a Howard County grand jury.

Local prosecutors plan a press conference, and Tripp's attorney, Joseph Murtha, said signs point to prosecution.

While still hopeful that Tripp won't be prosecuted, Murtha said yesterday: "I've been preparing myself to be more realistic. There is a greater likelihood that she will be indicted."

For a year, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has been gathering evidence to prosecute the Columbia resident, who tape recorded conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and possibly violated a Maryland law in the process.

Tripp's tapes helped expose a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and President Clinton.

In recent months, Montanarelli has questioned Lewinsky and obtained Tripp's tapes from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, said sources familiar with the case. Tripp gave Starr the tapes under an immunity agreement.

Several signs show that the investigation is coming to a conclusion.

Montanarelli has submitted a report to Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon that outlines his reasons for wanting to prosecute Tripp, said sources familiar with the case.

Under Maryland law, he must submit that report, and McLendon can decide to take the case or allow him to do so. McLendon has decided to let Montanarelli proceed, those sources said.

Howard County Deputy State's Attorney Dario Broccolino and an official in the state prosecutor's office declined to discuss the report. McLendon was out of town yesterday.

"Our office is not going to comment on reports we were to write for Marna McLendon," said Gavin Patashnick, a spokesman for the state prosecutor. "We believe those reports are confidential."

McLendon has called a press conference for 2 p.m. today.

A statement issued by her office yesterday says: "The conference is being given to provide information on the status of the grand jury investigation of Linda Tripp regarding allegations of violations of the Maryland Wiretap Statute."

"It's unusual for Marna to have a press conference to say something that did not have any impact on the investigation or its outcome," Murtha said. "There will be a conclusion. I'm convinced of that."

In February 1998, under fire from Democrats who were demanding an investigation of Tripp, McLendon, a Republican, turned over the case to Montanarelli, who started his probe last July.

Since then, he has tried to get at least copies of tapes from various sources, including Tripp's attorneys, to bolster his case. Last month, Montanarelli obtained Tripp's tapes from Starr's office, sources said.

It is unclear whether Montanarelli will play or has played those tapes for the grand jury. To get an indictment, legal experts said, prosecutors probably don't need the tapes. He might risk getting the indictment thrown out if he does play them.

"If they have evidence that illegal taping took place independent of the tapes themselves, they might be willing to forgo using tapes at the grand jury stage," said Max H. Lauten, a former federal prosecutor and now a Baltimore defense attorney. "Then, [they can] let the court rule in advance of trial to see whether the tapes can be used at trial."

Because Tripp's testimony before Starr's grand jury is protected by her immunity deal, Montanarelli has been forced to gather evidence unconnected with the federal investigation.

His investigators have questioned crucial players in the saga that led to Clinton's impeachment in December.

They interviewed Lewinsky at their Baltimore offices last month and presented that evidence to the Howard County grand jury -- a crucial part of their prosecution, legal experts said.

Montanarelli's investigators have also questioned Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who helped persuade Tripp to tape the conversations with Lewinsky. They also brought Radio Shack employees before the grand jury who testified that they warned Tripp about Maryland's law when she bought recording equipment at the The Mall in Columbia.

Tripp told a federal grand jury that she learned it was illegal to tape in Maryland in late 1997 but continued to do so. "I needed to protect myself," she testified.

The law carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine.

Sun staff writer Walter F. Roche Jr. contributed to the article.

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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