Montanarelli denies starting investigation of Tripp taping State prosecutor calls his statement on case 'probably unfortunate'


WASHINGTON -- Maryland's state prosecutor backpedaled yesterday, saying he has not started an investigation into whether Linda R. Tripp broke state law by secretly tape recording phone calls with Monica Lewinsky.

Wednesday, state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli confirmed that there was fresh activity in the case. Asked about concerns by Tripp's lawyers that he had decided to investigate her, he told The Sun: "You can assume from that that something is happening. What is happening I can't discuss. When we get ready to charge someone, we'll talk."

But yesterday he insisted that nothing was happening, except for the fact that he had met with lawyers for Tripp last week. Montanarelli said his comment Wednesday was "probably an unfortunate statement on my part."

Lawyers for Tripp stood by their assertion that after a meeting with Montanarelli last week they feared that he was moving ahead with his investigation of their client, a Pentagon employee and former colleague of Lewinsky.

"We met with Montanarelli," said Joseph Murtha, one of Tripp's lawyers. "There was a growing concern an investigation was imminent. The Sun accurately reflected our concerns for Mrs. Tripp. We are pleased to learn the state prosecutor is not moving ahead."

Tripp, a Columbia resident, faces the threat of prosecution in Maryland because she secretly taped hours of her phone conversations with Lewinsky from her home. Under Maryland law, it is a felony to tape a phone conversation without the consent of both parties. Tripp turned her tapes over to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in January, sparking the sprawling sex scandal that has dogged the president since then.

On the tapes, Lewinsky described a sexual relationship she said she had had with President Clinton, but in sworn statements both she and Clinton have denied having a sexual relationship.

State prosecutors typically defer to their federal counterparts when a federal inquiry involving the same subject matter or witnesses is under way.

In the Wednesday interview, the state prosecutor acknowledged that he originally told a prosecutor in Starr's office that he would defer his investigation so the independent counsel would have time to work. But, he added, "I didn't say how long. I did say a reasonable time."

Yesterday, Montanarelli would not say whether he had been contacted by Starr's office after his comments about the case were published. "I'd rather not say," the state prosecutor said. "There's been enough confusion by me talking. I'm not going to talk any more about it."

Starr's spokesman did not return repeated calls to his office yesterday.

Initially, the Tripp case was being handled by Howard County state's attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican who had said she would wait until Starr completed his investigation before deciding whether to prosecute Tripp.

But her decision to delay sparked rhetorical fireworks within the Maryland legislature. After Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, spoke of the case on the floor of the House of Delegates, Del. Gilbert J. Genn, a Montgomery County Democrat, rushed over to Flanagan and pointed a finger near his chest. But the confrontation, mischaracterized by The Sun yesterday as a "near brawl," did not escalate beyond that point.

Soon after that partisan and heated debate, McLendon turned the volatile case over to Montanarelli. He said in February he had no immediate plans to investigate.

In their meeting with the state prosecutor last week, Tripp's lawyers said they urged Montanarelli not to prosecute their client. They said such wiretap cases are rarely prosecuted in Maryland because it is hard to win a conviction. In an usual facet of the Maryland wiretap law, the offender must have knowledge that such secret taping is illegal.

Wednesday, Montanarelli confirmed that he had discussed with Tripp's lawyers that high threshold for successful prosecution, calling the standard a "legal obstacle we will have to overcome."

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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