- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 14, 1999

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. A Howard County prosecutor felt “unbearable” pressure to investigate whether Linda R. Tripp broke state law by taping phone conversations that led to the impeachment of President Clinton, according to testimony yesterday from a former deputy to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
At a pretrial hearing that may determine whether Mrs. Tripp must stand trial on two wiretapping charges, Jackie M. Bennett testified that Marna McLendon called him Jan. 26, 1998, and told him “there was a political campaign to put pressure on” the local prosecutor’s office to go after the woman who taped Monica Lewinsky.
“She indicated that she was receiving pressure that was becoming unbearable to her,” Mr. Bennett said.
Today, Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure is expected to rule on whether federal immunity given to Mrs. Tripp applies in the Maryland wiretapping case, and, if so, when that immunity began.
During the hearing’s first day, an FBI agent and three former Starr prosecutors testified that an “understanding of immunity” could have begun as early as Jan. 12, 1998, and that it was formally granted in a letter Jan. 16, 1998 the same day Mrs. Tripp handed over to Mr. Starr more than 20 hours of taped phone calls with the former White House intern.
Ten days later, Ms. McLendon called Mr. Bennett and disclosed the “political campaign.” The next month, Ms. McLendon, a Republican who promised to wait until Mr. Starr’s probe ended before initiating an inquiry, handed the case to State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, a Democratic appointee.
On Aug. 6, 1998 the first day of testimony by Miss Lewinsky before the Starr grand jury a Howard County grand jury began hearing evidence against Mrs. Tripp.
Mr. Bennett said pressure on Ms. McLendon came from the Democratic Club of Columbia, then from White House lawyer Rob Weiner, as well as Democrats in California, Massachusetts and North Carolina.
After Judge Leasure recessed the hearing yesterday, Ms. McLendon acknowledged feeling political pressure but denied it was “unbearable” and said she didn’t feel it until several days after her call to Mr. Bennett.
That differs from her accounts in July 1998, when she disclosed documents that showed a concerted effort by Democrats to make sure Mrs. Tripp was prosecuted. One letter revealed that the executive board of the Democratic Club of Columbia the Howard County town where Mrs. Tripp lives met Jan. 22, 1998, the day after the Lewinsky scandal broke, and unanimously voted to request a grand jury investigation.
“The tape-recording of Miss Lewinsky without her knowledge by Linda Tripp and the subsequent release of the tapes to third parties constitute felonies,” club president James B. Kraft wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to Ms. McLendon. “Ms. Tripp should be prosecuted.”
When Ms. McLendon insisted on waiting until Mr. Starr’s probe was complete, Mr. Kraft fired off a second letter that said, “To defer to Mr. Starr is to avoid your constitutional obligation to the citizens of Howard County.”
Ms. McLendon did subsequently hand the case over to Mr. Montanarelli, who presented witnesses to the Howard County grand jury that indicted Mrs. Tripp.
At first, Mr. Montanarelli had said he would wait until Mr. Starr concluded his investigation into Miss Lewinsky’s affair with Mr. Clinton, but instead began his investigation despite fierce criticism, on July 2, 1998, the second day of Mrs. Tripp’s testimony to the federal grand jury.
Days later, Mr. Montanarelli, under pressure from Maryland Republicans, revealed that Delegate Gilbert Genn, Montgomery County Democrat, called on Feb. 11, 1998, “urging me to undertake the investigation of Mrs. Tripp,” and acknowledged that 49 Democratic delegates signed a letter Jan. 30, 1998, calling for Mrs. Tripp’s prosecution.
Still, Mr. Montanarelli insisted then: “My decision to investigate the Tripp case was not due to political influence of any kind.”
Joseph Murtha, an attorney for Mrs. Tripp, said at the time: “We still believe it’s a politically motivated investigation.”
Mr. Murtha and David B. Irwin claim Maryland has obtained no independent evidence that she violated Maryland’s wiretap law by taping Miss Lewinsky without her knowledge. They said Maryland prosecutors are basing their case on evidence and testimony by Mrs. Tripp after she was granted immunity.
Mr. Bennett testified that when he and three other investigators went to Mrs. Tripp’s Columbia home on Jan. 12, 1998, they discussed her prospective testimony and tape recordings she had made of phone conversations with Miss Lewinsky.
“There was no federal offense that she had committed,” Mr. Bennett testified yesterday, explaining that federal law allows the recordings but Maryland requires that both parties consent to the taping.
“We told her that even though we could not guarantee her from prosecution under Maryland law … [it] would shift the burden to the Maryland prosecutor to prove a case with evidence found independently.”
By obtaining federal immunity, it would be almost impossible for Maryland prosecutors to use the tapes Mrs. Tripp and her attorney James A. Moody later turned over to the independent counsel.
But Assistant Attorney General Carmen Shepard said federal immunity did not begin until Feb. 19, 1998, when U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson formally signed the immunity agreement.
Besides, Maryland is basing its case mostly on a Dec. 22, 1997, tape recording obtained independently, Mr. Montanarelli has said previously. Mr. Montanarelli also has said the state’s case will be badly damaged if Judge Leasure decides Mrs. Tripp’s immunity began in mid-January.
The Howard County grand jury indicted Mrs. Tripp on two counts of breaking Maryland’s wiretap statute because she secretly taped Miss Lewinsky talking about her affair with Mr. Clinton. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $10,000.

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