On the day that Linda Tripp was finally indicted in Maryland for illegally taping Monica Lewinsky's tales of her up-and-down relationship with President Clinton, nobody could say what happened to the original evidence in the case -- the tapes themselves.
Tripp had admitted to a federal grand jury that she taped her girlfriend Lewinsky even after she knew it was illegal under Maryland state law. But she also was eventually granted immunity from state or federal prosecution by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, as long as she agreed to tell the truth. This immunity grant presumably covered the tapes, raising the question Friday of what other evidence the Maryland prosecutor had used to secure his indictment.
"I can't answer that question," said Steve Halpert, an investigator in the Maryland State Prosecutor's Office. Speaking for prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, Halpert said he could "neither confirm nor deny" that the grand jury saw or heard the tapes. Asked whether someone had testified that indeed tapes were made by Tripp, Halpert said, "That's correct."
"I'm not saying that we don't have these tapes. I'm saying that as part of the investigation, we certainly limit what we disclose because it's ongoing."
The grand jury indicted Tripp on two counts, one count of illegal interception stemming from a phone conversation taped on Dec. 22, 1997, after she was allegedly advised by her lawyer that secret taping was illegal. She also was charged with leaking the contents of that conversation to Newsweek magazine.
If found guilty, Tripp could face up to five years in jail and a fine of $10,000 or both. Further muddying the water was a report in Friday's Washington Post that Tripp's pal Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent, had "handed over what she said were copies of tapes made several months before Tripp learned such taping was illegal ..."
However, Goldberg dismissed that report out of hand.
"Those are tapes I made of Linda talking to me," she told Salon News. "And I didn't turn them over. They were subpoenaed. They were tapes that I made because she called me after 10 o'clock at night, at which time I am in bed reading terrible manuscripts that people write and send me.
"I always have a tape on," Goldberg explained, "because people call me up with their life stories, and I don't want to have to get out of bed and get a pad and a pen and write this stuff down. It's perfectly legal in New York state, always has been. Sometimes I tell people [I'm taping them] and sometimes I don't. Anybody who does regular business with me knows that after 10 o'clock at night, my tape is on. It's that simple. And those are the tapes I turned over to Montanarelli."
Tripp's lawyers are expected to vigorously challenge the Maryland prosecutor's use of any evidence obtained by Starr from Tripp under the immunity agreement as inadmissible.
But Halpert, the investigator, indicated that independent evidence, apart from the tapes, had been gathered by his office.
"It's not necessary to have tapes," he said. "The case can be put together from circumstantial evidence," but he declined to elaborate.
Goldberg described her testimony in the case for Salon News:
"When I testified before the grand jury, I could not refer to the Starr Report, the statements in the Starr Report, anything that was said in the Starr Report. I could not refer to any information in the tapes I had heard, or had knowledge of," Goldberg said. "None of that was permitted. I forgot it at one point and started to say, 'Well, in the Starr Report ...' and Montanarelli stopped me and said 'Unh-unh-unh-unh-unh' like, 'Don't go there. You can't talk about that.'"
So, what did she think the prosecutor was looking for?
"Oh, they were just fishing," Goldberg said. "They didn't know. They probably figured that we were plotting and naming all the members of the 'Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy.' Because everything Montanarelli has done, he has reported back to Democratic operatives in Maryland. If it were a Republican setup, they'd probably do the same thing," Goldberg added breezily. "It's just the way the world works."
Halpert sounded both shocked and amused by the statement. "She said that? That's so utterly ridiculous. It's completely asinine."
Despite Friday's indictment, no one expects Tripp to be seen in a courtroom soon. Her lawyers are expected to file a flurry of motions on her immunity agreement with Starr and arguing the supremacy of federal law as far back as the 1803 case of Marbury vs. Madison, which also happened to be heard in Maryland.
Meanwhile, the provenance of the many tapes will likely become an issue in the case. In an interview earlier this year, Goldberg maintained that Tripp's tapes of her conversations with Lewinsky were routinely duplicated and sloppily handled by Tripp's former lawyers, to the point that pristine originals would be hard to find. At one point, even her benefactor Starr opened an investigation into whether the tapes had been doctored.
Maryland's wiretap statute, which forbids one person to tape another without notification, is routinely violated and rarely prosecuted, experts agree. That has prompted Tripp's defenders to charge that the prosecutors are politically motivated. Halpert maintained that "we don't have statistics on a state-wide level" to demonstrate how many wiretapping cases have been opened in recent years.
But another Maryland official, Deputy State's Attorney Dario Broccolino, conceded wiretap prosecutions were "very rare." The Tripp investigation was no doubt triggered by media attention, he said in an interview, not because the prosecutor Montanarelli, a Democrat, was looking to punish an anti-Clinton whistle blower.
"If it's high-profile, it's not because we made it high-profile," Broccolino said.
Goldberg and other conservatives, such as regulars on the Free Republic Web site, have called for demonstrations in support of Tripp, a $94,000-a-year Pentagon administrator.
"If this poor woman who only loved her country and the dignity of the office of the president gets anything more than total exoneration on the phony 'wiretap' charges, we should march in the street," Goldberg wrote on her own Web site. "Clinton lied. Linda didn't."