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Next Monday’s hearing in the Linda Tripp “interception” case will be
a pivotal event in what is widely regarded as a politically motivated
prosecution of the person who blew the whistle on Bill Clinton and
Monica Lewinsky.

Tripp’s defense lawyers and Maryland prosecutors will be in court to
argue over the famous audiotape made by Tripp of her conversation with
Monica Lewinsky. If the judge rules that the tape cannot be used by the
prosecution — immunity promised explicitly by former Special Prosecutor
Kenneth Starr’s office — the Maryland case against Tripp could very
well collapse.

Tripp is being prosecuted under Maryland’s wiretapping law for
unlawfully taping a conversation between herself and Monica Lewinsky
Dec. 22, 1997, in order to provide evidence that the president of the
United States had tried not only to cover up the now-notorious affair,
but also had urged Lewinsky to perjure herself. Although Tripp admits
she was aware that it was illegal to tape a conversation between her and
another person without the other party’s knowledge or consent, she also
was operating under an immunity agreement from Starr’s office.

Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli recently subpoenaed five members of
former Special Prosecutor Ken Starr’s staff — Stephen Binhak, Stephen
Bates, Jackie Bennett, Bruce Udolf and Steve Irons — to testify at the
Dec. 13 hearing. All five lawyers are expected to testify in court that
the audiotape was under a grant of immunity from Starr.

Although Philip Coughter, Tripp’s chief spokesman, is cautiously
optimistic about the outcome of the hearing, he is disturbed by what he
sees as a White House spin campaign against Tripp.

“We firmly believe that Linda Tripp’s prosecution in Maryland is a
transparent, politically motivated effort that has been orchestrated by
the Clinton administration,” says Coughter.

Coughter, a former air force officer who worked with Tripp when he
was a spokesman in the Pentagon’s Office of Public Affairs, has known
Tripp for five years and characterizes her as a “decent, honorable,
optimistic and upbeat person.”

There is a wealth of circumstantial evidence pointing to a White
House campaign against Tripp, says Coughter. For instance, he notes that
49 of Maryland’s House of Delegate members — all Democrats — wrote a
letter to Attorney General Marna McClendon on Jan. 30, 1998, asking her
to prosecute Tripp.

Moreover, he says, Maryland has taken the highly unusual step of
offering the services of the deputy attorney general, the chief of the
Maryland criminal investigation unit, and as many lawyers as might be
needed, to help Montanarelli prosecute Tripp.

“I find it more than strange that the state of Maryland would bring
to bear such resources seldom employed against mass murderers, to hound
Mrs. Tripp. This legal piling on is virtually unprecedented, and in my
opinion, speaks to the political motivation of this prosecution,” says
Coughter.

‘We would be in big trouble’

In a Nov. 19 court hearing, Tripp attorney Joseph Murtha argued for
dismissal of the charges against Tripp because of her grant of federal
immunity. In papers filed on Tripp’s behalf, Murtha argued that the
lawsuit is based on information gleaned from Tripp’s immunized federal
testimony — and thus cannot lawfully be used against her.

In that hearing, Judge Diane Leasure ruled that legal arguments over
the use of the tape recording with Monica Lewinsky can be argued in
Monday’s court battle. The use of the Lewinsky tape is a make-or-break
issue for the prosecution.

“We would be in big trouble,” said Assistant Attorney General Carolyn
H. Henneman, if Leasure rules that Tripp had full immunity from Ken
Starr’s office over use of the tape.

Prosecutor Montanarelli agrees that “it would be extremely difficult
to continue” if he gets an unfavorable ruling from the judge.

Is government double-crossing Tripp?

Tripp’s defense strategy is simple. Kenneth Starr’s office sent Tripp
a letter on Jan 16, 1998 offering her a grant of immunity for the tapes
she had made of Monica Lewinsky’s conversations. Tripp’s lawyers
maintain Starr’s official offer of immunity protected Tripp from being
prosecuted for wiretapping. Whatever materials she provided to Starr
were also to be shielded from any lawsuits.

So how can Tripp be prosecuted?

Montanarelli claims Starr’s offer of immunity is invalid because it
was not signed off by a judge until mid-February.

“The state will prove at trial that Tripp made this recording after
she knew it was illegal to do so under Maryland law,” says Montanarelli,
“but before she received any immunity.”

Starr’s key lawyers are expected to cast doubt on Montanarelli’s
charges during Monday’s hearing. Indeed, Starr lawyer Jackie Bennett was
the one who sent Tripp the letter indicating she had federal immunity.
In the letter, Bennett assured Tripp she would have immunity “in any
criminal case” and that “this agreement expressly covers … certain
tape recordings.”

During the Nov. 19 hearing before Judge Leasure, Tripp’s lawyers
argued that even if Starr’s attorneys had made promises to Tripp they
couldn’t keep, the fact that she thought she was legally protected is
all that matters.

“The state cannot take advantage of a witness’ cooperation and then
turn around and prosecute them,” said Murtha.

Since Tripp was compelled by an independent counsel subpoena to turn
over the tapes to Ken Starr’s office in exchange for immunity, “we are
cautiously optimistic that the judge will see the validity of the
arguments of Tripp’s attorneys and that the charges will be dismissed
before it goes to trial,” says Coughter. “But if a trial is necessary,
Mrs. Tripp looks forward to the opportunity to tell the truth under
oath.” So far, Tripp’s legal and other costs in the Maryland case
have exceeded $500,000.

Tripp sues Pentagon and White House

Evidence of political retribution against Tripp is not new. On Sept.
27, Tripp attorney Stephen Kohn filed an invasion of privacy lawsuit
against the Pentagon and White House, alleging both had violated Tripp’s
privacy rights by releasing confidential information from her personnel
files to New Yorker reporter Jane Meyer, a violation of the federal
Privacy Act of 1974. Kenneth Bacon, Assistant Secretary of Defense and
Clifford Bernath, formerly a Bacon underling at the Pentagon are named
in the lawsuit.

The Washington, D.C.-based legal watchdog organization Judicial
Watch
deposed Bacon and Bernath. Under
oath, Bacon admitted he had orchestrated the release of information in
Tripp’s confidential file, later making a public apology. “In
retrospect, I’m sorry the incident occurred,” he said. “I’m sorry I
didn’t check with our lawyers, or check with Linda Tripp’s lawyers about
this.”

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