Tripp charged with 2 felonies

Howard grand jury hands up 2 counts of illegal wiretapping

`We've done our duty'

Her attorneys decry charges, calling case politically motivated

July 31, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Linda R. Tripp, whose secretive recording of conversations with a former White House intern led to the impeachment of the president, was indicted yesterday by a Howard County grand jury on charges of illegally taping telephone calls.

Of the three central figures in the scandal -- President Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and Tripp -- only Tripp has been charged with a crime.

Tripp's lawyers immediately denounced the indictment, calling it a political prosecution, and many other people wished the case would end soon.

Those include White House aides who fear a trial could be yet another nightmare for Clinton, with the prospect of testimony from Tripp and from Lewinsky, the former intern with whom he had an affair.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli has pursued the Tripp investigation for a year, calling witnesses and gathering evidence even as legal experts and critics questioned the investigation's length and possible outcome.

Montanarelli said yesterday that the investigation had been "difficult" and that many legal skirmishes remain.

If convicted, Tripp could be sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 for each of the two felony wiretapping charges.

"It should be apparent to anyone why it took so long if the case goes to trial," said Montanarelli, who declined to discuss the evidence. "I was given the case. We've done our duty. I intend to prosecute the indictment."

Tripp was nowhere to be seen and will be allowed to surrender voluntarily. She called in sick to work at the Defense Department and did not appear to be at her Columbia home.

Tripp, who polls show is reviled by many Americans, has tried this year to rehabilitate her image as someone who betrayed a friend. She has described herself as an average American, at one point declaring, "I'm you."

Yesterday, her attorneys defended Tripp at a news conference in Ellicott City, saying she was the victim of a "selective prosecution" and ought to be protected as a whistle-blower.

"I personally believe [this is] the most disgracefully, transparently politically motivated campaign of vengeance in recent American history," said Philip Coughter, Tripp's spokesman.

Tripp, 49, was indicted on charges she illegally intercepted a wire communication without the consent of Lewinsky on Dec. 22, 1997. She was also charged with having her former attorney James Moody disclose the contents of that tape to Newsweek magazine a few weeks later.

A spokeswoman for the newsmagazine declined to comment yesterday, and reporter Michael Isikoff, who wrote the articles, declined to comment. Moody declined to discuss his role but called the indictment "an attack on the only decent and honorable witness in the whole Clinton investigation."

Montanarelli declined to discuss why he charged Tripp with one count of illegal wiretapping and one count of disseminating information from the call. Tripp acknowledged to a federal grand jury that she had learned in November 1997 that taping calls was illegal in Maryland. She turned 27 tapes over to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr under an immunity deal.

As the scandal involving Clinton and Lewinsky dominated public attention early last year, Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican, came under fire from Democrats urging her to prosecute Tripp under the little-enforced law that bans taping others without their consent.

McLendon passed that investigation to Montanarelli's office early last year, saying partisan politics would cloud any outcome by her office.

As some critics accused him of political motives, Montanarelli took over the case in July 1998 and has been slowly gathering evidence in the case. He has interviewed Lewinsky, an essential element of his prosecution, at his office in Towson and has obtained the recordings from Starr, sources familiar with the case said.

Last week, more than a year after starting his investigation, Montanarelli sent a report to McLendon outlining his reasons for wanting to prosecute Tripp.

Under Maryland law, McLendon could prosecute the indictments herself or defer to the state prosecutor. She decided to let Montanarelli take the lead, she said, because he had gathered the evidence in the case.

McLendon also said Tripp needed to be held accountable for her actions.

"People are waiting to see what the message is for this alleged violation of the Maryland wiretap law," she said. "There is this issue of accountability, because there is sufficient evidence to move forward."

McLendon alluded to the political and high-profile nature of the case during her news conference yesterday -- one of the reasons she says she passed off the case to Montanarelli last year.

Republicans, who complained bitterly about Democrats pressuring prosecutors early in the investigation, said yesterday that the indictment is still tainted by those partisan actions.

Most of all, one Republican leader said, members of his party hope the matter goes away.

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