ANNAPOLIS – House Democrats said politics is not driving their push for a bill that would strengthen Maryland’s law against illegal wiretaps. But they acknowledged that the “Linda Tripp situation” ignited their campaign.
Lawmakers said they discovered a loophole in the state’s wiretapping law after news broke that Linda Tripp, a Columbia resident, secretly taped telephone conversations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Those tapes reportedly captured Lewinsky saying she had sex with President Clinton at the White House and that he told her to lie about it when she was subpoenaed in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against the president.
It is a felony in Maryland to record conversations without the consent of all participants, and Democrats in the state pressed for Tripp to be prosecuted after the story broke.
But Howard County State’s Attorney Marna McLendon, a Republican, refused to press charges. She cited a Maryland Special Court of Appeals ruling that said people can only be convicted of wiretapping if it can be proved that they knew it was a crime to do so.
That angered state Democrats, who accused McLendon of playing politics. In the ensuing furor, McLendon turned the case over to the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office.
But sponsors of the bill — 10 Democratic delegates — insisted that their bill is not directed at McLendon or intended to influence the Tripp case.
“I put the bill in after the Linda Tripp situation,” said Del. Gilbert J. Genn, D-Montgomery. “This bill has nothing, nothing — I repeat nothing to do” with what will happen in the Tripp case.
That brought a “yeah, right” from some members of the House Judiciary Committee as Genn explained the bill to them Tuesday.
Genn said the bill is only meant to keep another Tripp incident from happening in the future.
Under the current wiretapping law, it is illegal to wiretap “willfully.” Genn said the courts have interpreted willful to mean “more than intentional.”
“That is an insane law … that you had to know in order to violate the law,” said Genn. As it stands “if you don’t know it’s a violation of the law you’re home-free,” he said.
There are no other criminal statutes in Maryland that allow offenders to use ignorance as a defense, claiming that they did not know their crime was illegal, Genn said.
The bill would change a single word, making it illegal to “intentionally” wiretap without consent.
Genn said similar changes were made in federal wiretapping laws in 1987. And McLendon supports his proposed change to the Maryland law, he added.
McLendon’s office could not be reached for comment on the bill Tuesday evening.
Supporters say the change would not only strengthen the wiretap law, but would also close the loopholes that prevent courts from taking action.
“If current law really isn’t adequate to prevent police state tactics, by all means, strengthen it,” said Kenneth Stevens of Savage.