- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

RICHMOND A decision is expected early this week on whether federal prosecutors, with their far-reaching investigative powers, will take the lead in Virginia's widening Republican eavesdropping case.
Now that legislative aides are a focus of the month-old investigation of charges that Republican operatives have monitored confidential Democratic Party conference calls, the Virginia State Police and Richmond's chief prosecutor are stalemated.
Under Virginia law, the state police would have to obtain written authorization from the governor, the attorney general or a grand jury to question elected officials in the case.
Putting U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty's office in charge, with its ability to focus a federal grand jury and federal agents on the case, is one solution. Using a new state law allowing prosecutors to empanel special investigative grand juries is another.
"Whatever way this matter proceeds, it will have to be with the assistance of a grand jury," said Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks.
"From a broad legal perspective, a federal venue is preferable if you need wider subpoena and police power. Also, a federal venue gets you outside the appearance of impropriety, even potentially with judges," he said.
The prospect of questioning the legislature's most powerful Republicans rocked Virginia politics beginning April 17 with the disclosure that a cell phone belonging to the top aide of House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. logged on to a Democratic conference call in March.
Mr. Wilkins, Amherst Republican, last week placed Claudia D. Tucker on leave with her $72,275 annual state salary until the issue is resolved.
On April 18, House Republican Leader H. Morgan Griffith notified Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore that Jeff Ryer, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, might have witnessed some of the eavesdropping.
Miss Tucker and Mr. Ryer have hired attorneys. Neither has been charged.
In Virginia, judges are appointed by the General Assembly. Commonwealth's attorneys are elected, but as constitutional officers, the Republican-dominated legislature sets the state's share of money they receive.
"You don't have any of those problems with a federal judge," Mr. Hicks said in an interview about general legal procedures. He would not discuss the probe that so far has yielded four felony indictments against the state's former Republican Party staff director, Edmund A. Matricardi III.
Mr. Matricardi's attorney, Steven D. Benjamin of Richmond, said he is confident that Mr. Matricardi, 33, will be exonerated whether federal or state prosecutors are in charge.
The decision is up to Mr. McNulty, whose job since September 11 largely has been one of prosecuting terror suspects and investigating potential terrorist threats in Virginia's Eastern District, home to major airports, military bases, the Pentagon and key Internet hubs.
If Mr. McNulty takes over, he could hand the case to the Justice Department.
That happened in the early 1990s when a federal grand jury investigated, but refused to indict, U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb in a political eavesdropping scheme that targeted Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a fellow Democrat and Mr. Robb's political rival. Three Robb aides pleaded guilty and paid fines.
An assistant to Mr. McNulty, Frank Shults, said the office could not comment on the current case.
If federal authorities don't take over, Mr. Hicks could invoke a state law that took effect in July and petition a judge to empanel a far-reaching grand jury with statewide investigative authority. Those panels don't need special authority to question lawmakers.
Mr. Hicks convened his first special grand jury last summer to investigate a rash of shootings by law enforcement officers in Richmond.
"This is new, and it's not used that often. Clearly, it's untested given something of political consequence," he said.

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