The Magazine

LINDA'S LONG, STRANGE TRIP

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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ON JULY 7, AS LINDA TRIPP was testifying for a third day before Kenneth Starr's grand jury, Stephen Montanarelli, a Democratic prosecutor in Maryland, had a surprise announcement: He was going to launch a grand-jury investigation of his own, into Tripp's taping of phone calls with Monica Lewinsky. Thus did Tripp's life, already messy, become suddenly messier.


Montanarelli is the head of an office -- rare in states -- designed to probe government corruption. As Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney and independent counsel, puts it, Montanarelli is "a sort of statutory special prosecutor, a local Ken Starr." He has until now been known as relatively free of political bias.


When Montanarelli made his announcement, Republicans, along with Tripp and her lawyers, cried foul. They objected to his remarkable timing and noted (correctly) that he had in the past refused to prosecute persons who were not state officials. So why the pursuit of Tripp? Republicans had no trouble answering: Montanarelli, they said, had bowed to political pressure, as evidenced by a letter signed by 49 state Democrats howling for Tripp's head.


Initially, the case had fallen to a county prosecutor, Marna McLendon, a Republican, who protested, "Whatever we do, or don't do, will be subject to charges of political partisanship and political motivation." In late January, Montanarelli himself advised McLendon to take no action on Tripp's taping until Starr completed his work. He told the press at the time, "This should defer to the federal investigation. People disagree, but [McLendon] doesn't have a case." Montanarelli went on to say, "I don't think there's any knowledge that [Tripp] knew the Maryland law [which requires 'two-party consent' to the taping of phone calls]. The prosecutor has to have that evidence going in, or [the case] will be dismissed."


After weeks of pounding by Democrats, McLendon passed the matter to Montanarelli, explaining that she wanted to "take the politics out of the case." Yet Democrats were not appeased. A member of the Maryland House Judiciary Committee griped, "[This is] a very clever Machiavellian political move to send the issue to a legal dungeon." A day after receiving the case, Montanarelli, from the dungeon, told the Washington Post that he would not initiate any prosecution while the Starr probe continued: "We'd be wanting the same witnesses and the same documents at the same time. This isn't just any federal investigation. It's one of the biggest in the nation, and it involves the president of the United States. Why should a Maryland prosecutor intervene?"


Obviously, Montanarelli changed his mind. His decision to prosecute is a flat contradiction of his repeated statements over five months -- besides which, virtually everyone familiar with Maryland law considers the case a certain loser. Says Joe diGenova, "The question is, Did [Tripp] know it was illegal to tape" (without Lewinsky's permission)? "That is a very heavy burden for a prosecutor to prove. The person usually has to admit it, and Tripp is under no legal obligation to cooperate with the prosecutor. I don't see how Montanarelli meets the burden."


Furthermore, it is widely assumed that Tripp, back in January, received from Starr the type of immunity that would shield her from legal repercussions at the state level. DiGenova says that "once you immunize an act, you create problems for other prosecutors," meaning that Tripp is in all likelihood "protected from heat-seeking missiles in Maryland." Indeed, James Moody, an early Tripp lawyer, told the New York Times, "I asked for immunity and she got it. I knew it was routine for whistle-blowers to be in fear of retaliation, and so I made the request." Yet Anthony Zaccagnini, Tripp's current lead counsel, says that Montanarelli's action prevents Tripp, and her lawyers as well, from speaking publicly about the tapes until even the barest threat of state jeopardy has passed.


For almost half a year, Linda Tripp lay low, not uttering a peep, waiting for her chance to appear before the grand jury in Washington. All the while, say some who know her, she nursed the hope that she would be vindicated once she could explain.


Her day finally arrived on June 30, when she began her testimony. But only the jurors could hear her. Outside, her name was still mud, as she was depicted in the media as a snitch, a hustler -- someone who would wreck a friendship and roil a country for the sake of a book deal. The comedians, of course, had a field day with her looks.