- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

RICHMOND Virginia State Police have opened an investigation into whether Gov. James S. Gilmore III's political operation is violating the state's wiretapping laws.

Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said operators for a phone bank hired by Mr. Gilmore's political action committee have listened in on conversations between senators and constituents who are calling to tell them to continue the car-tax cut.

The New Majority Project political action committee has been running the phone operation to stir up support among the Senate Finance Committee for the governor's wish to extend the car-tax rebate to 70 percent.

Phone operators have been urging residents from districts of Finance Committee members to call their senator, and they offer either to give residents the senator's number or ask if the person would like to be connected directly to the senator's office. If the person agrees, the operator connects the call.

But legislative aides to senators reported hearing background noise as if the operator were still listening. "It's clear they were not getting off the phone after they connected," Mr. Stolle said.

But Ray Allen Jr., a consultant to Mr. Gilmore's PAC, said the operators are just connecting the constituents to the senators' offices and aren't listening in on conversations.

"At no time has any of our political action committees or anyone at my firm or any of our vendors in any way recorded or eavesdropped, or in any way participated in the telephone calls," he said. "There isn't I repeat, there isn't a serious legal issue here.

Officials at the company hired to make the calls, Conquest Communications, did not return a call for comment.

Mr. Stolle said he told state police last Friday about the calls, which started last Thursday. Col. W. Gerald Massengill, superintendent of the state police, wouldn't comment on specifics other than to say an investigation began after Mr. Stolle brought it to his attention.

"The information was such that there were indications that Virginia's telephone-intercept law may have been violated, and the senator did, I guess, what any responsible citizen would do and passed the information on to law enforcement," Col. Massengill said.

The calls at first were directed at members of the Senate Finance Committee, which currently seems to be the biggest roadblock to the governor getting his car-tax plan enacted.

Not every member of the committee reported that their office is getting the calls, but those who did said it's clear that someone is listening in on conversations.

"In one instance, one man said as he hung up, 'Did I do all right?,' to the telemarketer," said Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, who said her office has been cooperating with the state police investigation over the last few days.

Some of the callers didn't receive an answer, and the call went into voice mail, and some legislative assistants have saved recordings where background noise that sounds like a call center can be heard.

State police have been given copies of those calls, Mr. Stolle and others said.

But Mr. Allen said there is nothing to be found on the recordings and that calling for an investigation is the senators' way of turning attention away from the car-tax debate.

"When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin got into trouble with the electronic media, he launched an investigation of the largest television station in Moscow. In modern Virginia, we don't do that," he said.

Mr. Stolle called that response the "politics of assassination."

Even if the calls were being monitored, though, Mr. Allen said it isn't illegal. "The allegation is not true. Even if it were true, it wouldn't be against the law, but it's just not true," he said.

The car-tax rebate on private vehicles under $20,000 in value was supposed to jump to 70 percent this year, and Mr. Gilmore, a Republican, included money for that phase of the cut in his budget.

But the Senate is moving toward freezing the cut at 47.5 percent last year's rate in order to restore money for other programs the governor has proposed cutting.

When reporters asked the governor about the investigation early yesterday afternoon, he said he wasn't aware of it. Aides said he didn't find out about it until late yesterday afternoon, and said he was never aware of specifics of how the calls were handled.

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