The Justice Department filed charges Wednesday against a Florida couple who said they had intercepted and recorded a conference call last December between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republican leaders.
Federal authorities in Jacksonville, Fla., announced Wednesday afternoon that the couple, John and Alice Martin, had been charged with an infraction, violating the Communications Privacy Act by using a radio scanner to intentionally intercept the radio portion of the conversation. It is the mildest criminal charge the couple could face in the case and carries a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine.
The government said the Martins had agreed to plead guilty to the charges, but said the investigation would continue into how a recording of the conversation wound up in the hands of a New York Times reporter.
The conversation the Martins taped took place on the same day Gingrich admitted he had violated House ethics rules by failing to get adequate legal advice on the use of tax-exempt money and then giving the House ethics committee inaccurate information in its investigation.
During the call, the speaker and several colleagues discussed how best to handle the political fallout of the ethics charges. After it was made public, Democrats complained that the call violated a plea bargain of sorts that Gingrich had made with the committee, in which he had agreed not to rally opposition to the committee’s decision to reprimand him.
A Republican leader who was at the center of the case said he was pleased with Wednesday’s action, but called the Martins “patsies” and demanded quicker action from the Justice Department in investigating others in the incident. Republicans have repeatedly said they believe the Martins, who are Democrats, were used by their arty’s leaders for partisan purposes.
“I won’t be satisfied until every guilty party is brought to justice regardless of their political affiliations or position of influence,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking Republican leader. He added, “Anyone who knowingly accepted the tape and passed it along to the press is also guilty.”
Boehner was driving through northern Florida on Dec. 21 when the Martins’ police scanner picked up signals from the cellular telephone he was using for a conference call with Gingrich and other Republicans.
Charles Wilson, the U.S. attorney for the middle district of Florida, said the Martins were spared a more serious charge because there was no evidence that they intended to use the intercepted conversation for illegal purposes or financial gain, such as blackmail.
The Martins acknowledged at a news conference on Jan. 13 that they had intercepted the call and taped it when they recognized Gingrich’s voice.
The couple said their congresswoman, Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., advised them to give the recording to the senior Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and that they did so.
The existence of the tape became public on Jan. 10 when The New York Times reported that a Florida couple had intercepted the telephone conversation and that a Democratic member of the House who was hostile to Gingrich had made the tape available to the newspaper.