- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. Jim McDermott asked an appeals court yesterday to overturn a ruling that he took part in an illegal transaction by providing a taped telephone call to reporters.

In arguments that evoked the recent CIA leak case, the appeals court wrestled over whether a federal district court’s 2004 ruling could interfere with the ability of the press to gather information on important public issues.

Attorneys for 18 news organizations — including the New York Times, the Associated Press and TV networks — filed a brief backing the Washington Democrat.

“If affirmed, the district court’s approach will jeopardize and chill traditional newsgathering and likely encourage an increasing variety of efforts by the government and private citizens to punish the publication of truthful information on matters of public importance,” the organizations said.

Mr. McDermott leaked a tape of a 1996 cell phone call involving Newt Gingrich, who was House Speaker at the time, to the New York Times and other news organizations.

The call included a discussion by the Georgia Republican and other House Republican leaders about an ethics committee investigation of Mr. Gingrich.

Lawyer Frank Cicero said that although Mr. McDermott’s actions might be distasteful and even part of the “politics of personal destruction, the First Amendment covers speech like that.”

But an attorney for one of the participants in the call — Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican — said Mr. McDermott’s actions were against the law.

“I think we should chill illegal behavior like Representative McDermott’s — because it’s illegal and it chilled the free speech of others,” Michael Carvin said, referring to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Gingrich.

The case stems from a tape that a Florida couple made in December 1996 and gave to Mr. McDermott the following month.

Mr. McDermott, who was the ranking Democrat on the ethics panel at the time, leaked the tape to newspapers, which printed partial transcripts of the call in January 1997.

Mr. Gingrich later was fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House, and he resigned his seat in November 1998. The Florida couple pleaded guilty to unlawfully intercepting the call and were fined $500 each. Mr. McDermott gave up his seat on the ethics committee.

Mr. McDermott was never charged with a criminal offense, but Mr. Boehner filed a lawsuit in 1998 accusing the Democrat of violating state and federal wiretapping laws.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled that Mr. McDermott should pay Mr. Boehner more than $600,000. The figure includes $60,000 in damages and more than $500,000 in legal costs.

Judge Hogan, who also presided in the case involving the public identification of CIA agent Valerie Plame, ruled that Mr. McDermott’s “willful and knowing misconduct rises to the level of malice.”

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