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Lawsuit alleges illegal taping; State agency accused of breaking wiretap law


The state Injured Workers' Insurance Fund has secretly taped thousands of telephone conversations with unsuspecting lawyers and clients, in direct violation of the state wiretap law, according to a class action suit filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

The suit, filed Thursday by Baltimore attorney Jeff E. Messing, charges that the Towson-based fund, which provides workers' compensation insurance coverage to thousands of Maryland businesses, has been taping the telephone conversations without informing callers. The suit does not indicate what was done with the recordings.

Thomas Michels, the attorney for IWIF, did not respond yesterday to requests for comment on the suit. IWIF could face penalties of up to $100 a day for each day the law was violated or $1,000 for each person whose calls were recorded.

The Maryland wiretap law, which has been the focus of national attention recently, states that all parties to a telephone call must give their consent before the conversation may be intercepted or recorded.

A Howard County grand jury is hearing testimony on allegations that Linda Tripp violated the state Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act when she recorded conversations in which Monica Lewinsky detailed her affair with President Clinton.

Created by the legislature about 80 years ago, IWIF is run by a board appointed by the governor. Gov. Parris N. Glendening recently announced plans to create a task force to review IWIF's operations.

The suit filed this week by Messing cites the state wiretapping statute and charges that IWIF routinely records incoming and outgoing calls without prior consent. The wiretap law, the suit notes, contains criminal and civil penalties.

Named as plaintiffs in the suit are Jack J. Schmerling of Glen Burnie, an attorney who specializes in workers' compensation cases, and Robby L. Arnold of Baltimore, who has a claim pending before IWIF.

Messing, who is not a plaintiff, said he became aware of IWIF's tape-recording practices during a recent telephone conversation with an IWIF agent about the status of a claim filed in behalf of one of his clients. He said he asked the IWIF agent whether the call was being recorded and only then was told that it was.

Messing said he then told the IWIF employee he would discuss the case only on a phone that would not automatically record the conversation. He said he was told there was no way to turn off the recorder.

He said the IWIF employee called back about a week later, having found one phone in the IWIF building on Loch Raven Boulevard that was not linked to the recording system.

In addition to damages, the suit asks the court to declare illegal the IWIF practice of automatically recording incoming and outgoing phone conversations without consent and to issue an injunction ordering IWIF to halt the practice immediately.

No hearing date has been set.

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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