WASHINGTON — Linda Tripp, the Defense Department employee who launched the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal with her secretly recorded tapes, was freed Wednesday from the threat of criminal prosecution.
Maryland prosecutors--attributing their action to a state judge's rulings--dismissed their wiretapping case against Tripp. Howard County Circuit Judge Diane O. Leasure in recent weeks issued two decisions that suppressed most of Lewinsky's testimony, the heart of the state's case.
The judge's rulings resulted from the fact that Tripp had received immunity from federal prosecution for her testimony two years ago before a grand jury in Washington impaneled by former Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr--and the judge's finding that Lewinsky's identification of a key tape was based on her knowledge of Tripp's testimony.
State prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said Leasure doomed the case Monday by refusing to let Lewinsky authenticate a Dec. 22, 1997, tape-recording that was his most crucial piece of evidence against Tripp.
The judge had first imposed limits May 5 on what Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose personal relationship with President Clinton led to his impeachment, could tell jurors. Tripp's trial was scheduled to start in July.
Leasure limited Lewinsky's testimony because she found that her recollection of the events of December 1997, when Tripp has acknowledged taping several of her phone conversations with Lewinsky, was based partly on her knowledge of Tripp's immunized testimony.
Although Tripp was shielded from prosecution in federal court, prosecutors believed they could properly charge her in Maryland, where she resides, because it is against state law to record a telephone conversation without the consent of both parties.
Leasure said Lewinsky was not a credible witness because her testimony was legally tainted by her knowledge of what Tripp had testified to.
"We believe her, the court does not, and that resolves the matter," Montanarelli said in a statement.
"There are no other witnesses to the conversation whom the state can call to testify, and Tripp cannot be compelled to testify," he said.
Tripp, who taped hours of private phone calls with Lewinsky--a former co-worker at the Pentagon--and turned the recordings over to Starr, was indicted a year ago specifically for taping a Dec. 22, 1997, conversation from her home and sharing its contents with Newsweek magazine.
Plato Cacheris, Lewinsky's Washington attorney, said his client is still bitter toward her former confidant but does not regret "that she doesn't have to come down from New York to testify."
"She continues to feel betrayed by Linda Tripp but understands Montanarelli's decision was based on the judge's ruling," Cacheris said.
As a result of Leasure's rulings, Lewinsky was permitted to testify that she never gave Tripp permission to record their phone talks. But she could not have authenticated the date of the crucial Dec. 22, 1997, recording because the judge said she only recalled that from Tripp's own immunized testimony.
A similar problem with tainted testimony in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration led to reversal of the convictions of former presidential assistants Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter.
Tripp, who long has claimed her prosecution was "politically motivated" by Montanarelli, a Democratic officeholder, said after the announcement of the dismissal that she was "enormously gratified that the federal immunity I was given has finally provided the protection it promised.
"I continue to believe I did the right thing, given the extraordinary circumstances in which I found myself."
Lucianne Goldberg, the New York literary agent who suggested to Tripp that she tape her conversations with Lewinsky to protect herself, said she was "just thrilled for Linda."
"She has been through such an extraordinary and unfair ordeal," Goldberg said. "This has eaten up two years of her life, and her biggest crime was telling the truth."