Tripp wiretap charges dropped

Judge excluded Lewinsky testimony, doomed Md. case

May 25, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

State prosecutors dropped their wiretapping case yesterday against Linda R. Tripp, the Columbia resident whose illicit recording of Monica Lewinsky exposed a sex scandal at the White House and led to the president's impeachment.

The decision came after a pretrial ruling essentially eliminated the state's main witness, Lewinsky, whose testimony state prosecutors needed to prove that Tripp broke the law.

Outside the Howard County Courthouse yesterday evening, Tripp's lead defense attorney, Joseph Murtha, declared victory and said his client was "relieved" that the criminal case was finished.

In a statement, Tripp said: "The full story has not been told, but I continue to believe I did the right thing given the extraordinary circumstances in which I found myself."

"My family and I are enormously gratified that the federal immunity I was given has finally provided the protection it promised."

The end comes more than two years after state prosecutors began investigating Tripp's secret taping, which revealed a sexual relationship between President Clinton and Lewinsky, a former White House intern.

Tripp is the only major figure from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to be charged with a crime.

Lewinsky could not be reached for comment yesterday. Her attorney, Plato Cacheris, said he was not surprised the case was over.

"I don't think [State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli] had much choice, given the rulings that the judge made," Cacheris said.

"I think he did what he had to do."

Cacheris said he wasn't disappointed that the case was over and was sure Lewinsky didn't mind either.

"I don't think she looked forward to coming to Howard County to testify," he said. "That doesn't mean she doesn't feel betrayed by Linda Tripp."She will always have that feeling."

Tripp, 50, was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping law for illegally tape-recording a conversation with Lewinsky Dec. 22, 1997, and having her attorney disclose its contents to Newsweek magazine.

State prosecutors should have had a fairly easy time earning a conviction, but they ran into an obstacle that they could not overcome: Tripp's federal immunity.

On May 5, after six days of hearings spread over five months that examined whether state prosecutors gathered their evidence independently from that immunity agreement, Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure effectively ended the case.

In her decision, Leasure ruled that Lewinsky was tainted by Tripp's immunized testimony to federal authorities and, therefore, could not identify the Dec. 22, 1997, conversation.

State prosecutors were forbidden to use witnesses who were exposed to information that Tripp gave to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr under her immunity deal.

After the ruling, Montanarelli conceded the case was in trouble but made a last-ditch effort, asking Leasure to "clarify" her decision.

Leasure denied that request Monday.

Montanarelli needed Lewinsky to authenticate a partial transcript of the recording that appeared in Newsweek. He also was relying on Lewinsky to date the recording to prove that Tripp knew it was illegal to make the secret recording but continued to do so.

State prosecutors had witnesses who could establish that Tripp knew it was illegal to record others in Maryland without their consent as early as November 1997.

State prosecutors had no other witnesses to the recording. Once they lost Lewinsky, prosecutors could not prove the conversation even occurred.

"If Lewinsky can't testify that the conversation took place, that is fatal to the case," Montanarelli said.

Though disappointed about dropping the charges, Montanarelli said it was the ethical thing to do.

"This was a loss," he said. "We worked very hard on this case. We've taken it as far as we could go."

Most legal experts questioned why Montanarelli brought a case that involved a federally immunized witness, complex legal issues and so little payoff at the end: At most, Tripp would have received probation if convicted.

But the legal experts agreed with Montanarelli that the judge's ruling spelled the end of his prosecution and gave him a graceful way to get out of the morass.

"This was a good way for him to say, `I did my duty,' and blame it on the court," said Abraham Dash, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and critic of the investigation.

Tripp's confidant, Lucianne Goldberg, who told Tripp in September 1997 that there was no problem taping in Maryland, said yesterday that she was "ecstatic."

"Her nightmare is over," Goldberg said. "This was just vicious and political and small."

Even if the New York literary agent had given Tripp correct legal advice not to make the recording, Goldberg said, "I think she was so scared at the time that she probably wouldn't have listened to me."

At Tripp's home on Cricket Pass in the Village of Hickory Ridge, her two-story house was quiet during the afternoon and early evening. A dog barked from the inside, but otherwise there was no sign of life.

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