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Tuesday, May 19, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Civil Suit Against Mcdermott Over Leaked Tapes Gears Up -- Rep. Boehner Says His Privacy Was Violated

Seattle Times Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Nearly a year and a half has passed since Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott made national headlines by allegedly leaking to three newspapers a taped cellular-phone call featuring Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich's ethics case and most of the issues surrounding it were resolved long ago, but lawyers are just starting to get revved up about McDermott.

Yesterday, an Ohio congressman filed a 39-page court brief claiming that McDermott is shamelessly attempting to wiggle out from under an electronic-privacy law. Attorneys for Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was on the recording, also said they soon will be ready to start legal discovery in the case, which likely would include questioning the Washington state Democratic under oath about his role.

"He is doing anything and everything he can to avoid answering the only question that matters, which is did he leak the tape or not?" said Ted Cruz, an attorney for Boehner.

Boehner sued McDermott this year for $10,000 in civil damages, claiming McDermott violated his privacy rights by giving the tape of the private phone call to the press. It's believed to be the first time a member of Congress has sued another to settle a private grievance.

McDermott has asked that the civil case be dismissed. He has refused any public comment, after first saying he didn't know anything about it.

Last year, a Florida couple said they taped the call among Gingrich, Boehner and others from a police scanner, then gave it to McDermott. A few days later, transcripts of the call were published in newspaper articles contending the conversation showed Gingrich was violating ethics rules.

But Republicans focused on the fact that it's illegal to tape a private cell-phone call, and on the allegation that the lead Democrat on the ethics committee - McDermott - apparently had taken the ethically questionable action of leaking the illegally taped information.

McDermott's attorney, Frank Cicero, argues that anyone has the First Amendment right to disseminate "truthful and lawfully obtained information on a matter of substantial public concern." McDermott has not admitted leaking the tape, but he is arguing it would be OK if he did because he got it legally from the Florida couple and it was accurate.

In yesterday's court filing, Boehner's attorneys said McDermott's views on privacy and confidential information are dangerously lax, at least as he would like them applied to him. Under McDermott's broad standard, for instance, Benedict Arnold never would have been punished for leaking the plans of West Point to the British, Boehner's court filing said, because the notorious traitor lawfully obtained the plans.

A judge in U.S. District Court in Washington is expected to hear arguments in the case sometime this summer.

Danny Westneat's phone-message number is 206-464-2772. His e-mail address is: dwestneat@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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