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Tripping Over the Law on Recording

Bill Press, former chair of the California Democratic Party, co-hosts CNN's "Crossfire."

Hear that loud, pained squeal coming from the banks of the Potomac? For once, it’s not Paul Begala or James Carville complaining about Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton. This time, it’s Republicans howling about the Maryland state prosecutor’s investigation of Linda Tripp.

Seldom has so much whining been heard with so little justification.

Republicans contend there’s no evidence that Tripp broke the law. They accuse State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli of conducting a political witch hunt. And they insist Montanarelli deliberately convened his own grand jury this week in order to embarrass Tripp while she was testifying before Starr’s grand jury. They’re wrong on all three counts.

The law is clear. In Maryland, it’s a felony to tape telephone conversations without informing the person at the other end of the line. Tripp lives in Maryland. From her home, she taped 20 hours of conversations with her “friend” Monica Lewinsky without telling her. Bingo!

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Did Tripp know she was breaking the law? Maybe yes, maybe no. She certainly knew enough to raise the question with book agent Lucianne Goldberg, who egged her into taping Lewinsky and assured her it was legal. Tripp also became worried enough about her taping, later, to seek advice from Starr, who gave her immunity. But that’s what investigations are for--to find out. Besides, since when is ignorance of the law an excuse?

If there’s no doubt about the law, there’s also no doubt about the reputation of Montanarelli. A Democrat, Montanarelli did not undertake this investigation on his own. He was asked to do so by a Republican. In February, Marna McClendon, Republican prosecutor of Howard County, where Tripp lives, petitioned Montanarelli to take over the complaint against Tripp because, she said, she wanted to avoid “any perception of a conflict of interest.” Handing over the local matter to the independent state prosecutor, McClendon told the Washington Post, “took politics out of the case.”

On Feb. 11, McClendon explained her decision to CNN: “The office of state prosecutor is expressly designed by statute to be not elective, independent and nonpartisan . . . . Montanarelli has served in this office for the past 14 years. I assure you all that he will provide a fair and professional review of this matter.”

Ignoring McClendon’s endorsement, Beltway Republicans instead accuse Montanarelli of operating on direct orders from the White House to destroy Tripp. The shoe doesn’t fit. Montanarelli was appointed, not elected, state prosecutor. He has never run for office as a Democrat. He has never been active with the Democratic Party, nor served on any party committee. He belongs to no Democratic organization. He has given no money to Democratic candidates in the last eight years.

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Montanarelli may be a registered Democrat, but he is no partisan pit bull. He is a state prosecutor asked by a Republican county prosecutor to examine evidence that a high-profile Maryland resident may have broken the law. He’s not playing politics. He’s just doing his job.

OK, so how about the timing? Why this week? Why wait till Tripp’s moment of glory in front of Starr’s grand jury? According to the state prosecutor, it just happened that way. According to Republicans, it was diabolically planned that way. Who knows? The only question that really matters is: Did Tripp break the law?

But isn’t it funny? After months of ridiculing First Lady Hillary Clinton for suggesting the attacks against her husband were the product of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Republicans now claim that the investigation of Tripp is proof of a “vast left-wing conspiracy.” If only Democrats were that organized!

The truth is, Tripp is no victim and deserves no sympathy. She’s no Joan of Arc. She’s no crusader for justice. She’s a petty, disgruntled former White House employee so hungry for a book deal that she was willing to betray her friend, and perhaps even break the law, to get one.

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Whatever trouble Tripp is in, she brought on herself. Banished from the White House, Tripp sat and stewed in the Pentagon, a spider weaving her web of deceit. She tried to catch Lewinsky and Clinton. She still might. But now Tripp has become entangled in her own web.

And here’s the ultimate irony: In the end, the only one indicted in the White House sex scandal she spawned may be Tripp herself. No one deserves it more.


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