Court: Tripp Not Fully Covered by Starr's Immunity Agreement

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

( - A Maryland judge ruled today that Linda Tripp's immunity agreement with then Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was not in effect when she turned over tapes of secretly recorded conversations with Monica Lewinsky.

Tripp faces trial on state wiretapping charges, and today's ruling by Howard County Circuit Judge Diane Leasure clears the way for the state to proceed with its case against Tripp, depending on what other information emerges from this week's pretrial hearing.

Leasure's decision was made despite testimony from one of Starr's former deputies that one Maryland prosecutor was under "unbearable" political pressure from Democrats to prosecute Tripp for the tapes that eventually lead to President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

During Tripp's pre-trial hearing, Leasure ruled that, "unfortunately for Mrs. Tripp," her immunity didn't begin until February 19, 1998, when a federal judge actually signed the immunity order. Tripp's lawyers argued that her immunity began on January 16, 1998, the day she gave the tape to Starr's prosecutors.

Tripp's attorneys David Irwin and Joe Murtha had asked the judge not to allow prosecutors to use the tape, maintaining that her immunity began January 16, 1998. That was the day she handed the tapes over to Starr's office and Deputy Independent Counsel Jackie Bennett signed the letter of immunity.

It's now up to Maryland prosecutors to show that their case is not tainted by any of Tripp's statements to the independent counsel's office. Tripp is charged with two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping law, and she's scheduled to stand trial in January.

On Monday former Deputy Independent Counsel Jackie Bennett said that Howard County, Maryland State's Attorney Marna McLendon was under political pressure to prosecute Linda Tripp for taping phone conversations with Lewinsky.

Bennett recalled a January 26, 1998, phone call he received from McLendon. According to Bennett, McLendon indicated during the call that she "was receiving pressure that was becoming unbearable to her." Bennett said there was a "political campaign" to pressure McLendon into prosecuting Tripp.

Tripp maintains that she began recording conversations with Lewinsky when it became apparent that the former intern and presidential mistress was asking her to commit perjury in a deposition conducted in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones.

The results of Tripp's pre-trial hearings this week will determine whether she will be one of the few people prosecuted in what began as an investigation of alleged corruption by the President of the United States.

Maryland State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli now has to prove to the court that his efforts to prosecute Tripp are not based on Starr's investigation. In her immunity agreement with Starr, Tripp was granted immunity from prosecution under federal wiretapping laws.

Montanarelli contends that the tapes are his to use against Tripp since she gave Starr the tapes before U.S. District Court Judge Norma Holloway Johnson formally approved the immunity deal on February 19, 1998. Leasure's decision today confirmed Montanarelli's contention.

While Starr was investigating Clinton's role in the Whitewater affair, Paula Jones' attorneys were seeking depositions from Clinton, Lewinsky and Tripp in Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit against the president. Jones' lawyers were seeking to establish a pattern of behavior by Clinton.

When Starr learned of the tapes existence, he arranged for Tripp to be immune from prosecution under federal wiretapping laws. He also sought to expand his investigation to include the question of whether the president committed perjury in a scheme to cover-up his affair with Lewinsky.

Like Jones' attorneys, Starr was also seeking to determine whether Clinton exhibited a pattern of behavior.