- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

RICHMOND — A federal judge yesterday set aside two days in December for a trial in the federal lawsuit Virginia Democrats filed over the 2002 Republican telephone eavesdropping on private Democratic strategy sessions.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer set the case for trial Dec. 9 and 10, rejecting a request by attorneys for Democratic lawmakers for a five- or six-day trial.

Whether the case goes to trial or is settled out of court, however, may hinge on Judge Spencer’s clarification of an earlier ruling on how large an award the Democrats would be allowed to collect.

Judge Spencer ruled last month that the Democrats would be limited to $10,000. The Democrats’ attorneys asked the judge to clarify whether he meant $10,000 per defendant, a total judgment of no more than $10,000 from all defendants combined, or $10,000 payable to each plaintiff.

Should the judge limit the total the Democrats could collect to $10,000, the Republicans would have strong economic and political incentives to pay the judgment in full.

Already, both sides have rung up legal bills much larger than that, and the lawyers’ costs would spiral into the hundreds of thousands of dollars should the case go to trial.

Republican officials, however, would welcome the chance to not only cap their attorneys’ fees, but also end what they say is a Democratic “fishing expedition” to make public politically damaging details for Republicans in the advent of the 2005 gubernatorial and House races.

“They’ve made it clear that they’re not pursuing this litigation for the reason most people pursue litigation,” said Edward R. Fuhr, the lead attorney for the Republican Party of Virginia, one of several defendants in the case.

Other factors could complicate a swift Republican settlement, however.

The Democrats would appeal such a decision, said Kenneth C. Smurzynski, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. That could postpone the case for months, possibly until the gubernatorial campaigns are in full swing.

In addition, the Democrats could push to identify and collect damages from at least 20 defendants referenced in the Democrats’ lawsuit as “John and Jane Doe.”

The case stems from two teleconferences Democratic legislators held March 22 and 25 in 2002 with their attorneys to discuss legal strategy for challenging the Republican-dominated 2001 redistricting.

Edmund A. Matricardi III, former executive director of the state Republican Party, pleaded guilty last year to monitoring the calls, using a phone number and access code he received from a disgruntled former Democratic Party staffer.

He testified in court in September that he discussed what the Democrats had said with other senior Republican officials, including former state party Chairman Gary R. Thomson and former House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr.

Matricardi also testified that he discussed the calls with Anne P. Petera, a top aide to Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the presumptive 2005 Republican nominee for governor. Matricardi said Miss Petera assured him that he had done nothing illegal.

Miss Petera said last year that she had warned Matricardi immediately that what he had done was wrong. She was not charged in the federal criminal probe, and Mr. Kilgore backs her account. Mr. Kilgore’s office ultimately notified state police of the eavesdropping.

Matricardi, Mr. Thomson, Mr. Wilkins and Claudia D. Tucker, the former chief of staff to Mr. Wilkins, are defendants in the lawsuit.

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