ELLICOTT CITY, Md. A Howard County [Md.] Circuit Court judge yesterday gave state prosecutors leeway to use Linda Tripp’s secret recordings of Monica Lewinsky in Mrs. Tripp’s trial on two counts of violating state wiretapping laws.
Judge Diane O. Leasure ruled that Mrs. Tripp was not protected by federal immunity when she gave independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s prosecutors her recordings of Miss Lewinsky discussing her affair with President Clinton.
“This ruling I am making … is absolutely without prejudice,” said Judge Leasure, who was appointed to the bench in 1995 by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
In the second day of a pretrial hearing yesterday, the judge said that, due to a “technicality” in the law, Mrs. Tripp wasn’t protected until Feb. 19, 1998, when a federal judge signed an immunity order sought by Mr. Starr’s associates.
Mrs. Tripp’s attorneys had argued that she had immunity beginning Jan. 12, 1998, when she turned over the recordings under an agreement with the Starr prosecutors.
The timing of the immunity grant is key because the charges against Mrs. Tripp, who lives in Columbia, Md., focus on a single recording made in December 1997 after she learned from her attorney, Kirby Behre, that secretly recording conversations in Maryland is illegal. A Tripp attorney played that recording Jan. 17, 1998, to Newsweek magazine.
“We are not dismayed,” Tripp attorney Joe Murtha said after the ruling. “Linda believes that this is a war of attrition. Battles will be won and battles will be lost.”
Starr prosecutors on Monday testified they believed Mrs. Tripp, a Pentagon employee, was protected by immunity when she turned over her recordings to them.
Moreover, they said the Howard County prosecutor who originally considered filing charges against Mrs. Tripp, Marna McLendon, felt “unbearable” political pressure to investigate her. Miss McLendon, a Republican, eventually decided not to pursue the case.
Yesterday, state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli took the stand to explain how his investigation of Mrs. Tripp avoided any taint from the immunized testimony of Mr. Starr’s probe.
“I have never read the [Starr] report. I have not read the documents,” he said.
Mr. Montanarelli said information from Mrs. Tripp’s three bridge partners helped state prosecutors develop an independent case against her. “She told them she was tape-recording a woman named Monica who was having a sexual relationship with the president,” he said.
One player, Cynthia Haus, told a Howard County grand jury that Mrs. Tripp was changing batteries in the telephone tape recorder when Mrs. Haus asked rhetorically if recording a conversation without the person’s consent violated Maryland law.
“Yes, but I’m not going to be prosecuted,” Mrs. Tripp told Mrs. Haus, according to Mr. Montanarelli.
The three bridge players are expected to testify this week before Judge Leasure, who will decide whether they will be allowed to testify during Mrs. Tripp’s trial on two wiretapping charges beginning Jan. 18.
The Howard County grand jury indicted Mrs. Tripp on two counts of violating 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.
Under questioning by Mr. Murtha, Mr. Montanarelli acknowledged that grand jury transcripts do not show that the panel was told it must consider only witnesses’ testimonies that are independent and unaffected by the highly publicized Starr investigation.
Mr. Montanarelli said the jury was orally admonished before each meeting and during sessions that it could only consider testimonies and evidence that were “wholly independent” from federal proceedings.
“That was our admonition to the grand jury from the very beginning,” he said.
The state prosecutor himself said he and his staff kept abreast of the Starr proceedings only through news reports, though the Starr report, supplements and a memorandum were on file in his office.
“What I should have done was destroy them, put them under lock and key,” Mr. Montanarelli said.
The state prosecutors strove to maintain their independence, he said, especially when he and his staff questioned Miss Lewinsky. “We didn’t want to know” what she had learned by cooperating with the Office of Independent Counsel, he testified.
Miss Lewinsky asked not to appear before the grand jury, and Mr. Montanarelli presented a written statement, or sworn affidavit, on her behalf.
Mr. Murtha pointed out that the grand jury met twice in August 1998 but didn’t meet again until Dec. 10 that year while the Starr investigation continued. The grand jury met next on June 18, 1999, and indicted Mrs. Tripp on July 30.
Mr. Murtha’s questions suggested the grand jury was influenced by news reports. But Mr. Montanarelli said he was confident because of the admonitions that the jurors consciously separated news reports from what they heard in the grand jury room.
The pretrial hearing is scheduled to continue today.