The highest-ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee was implicated Monday in the apparently illegal dissemination of an intercepted cell phone conversation among Republican congressional leaders.
Ironically, the embarrassing revelation came on the very day the ethics panel was initially to begin a weeklong series of televised hearings in the ethics case against GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But, instead of the ethic committee’s special counsel on Gingrich, it was a Florida couple in the spotlight Monday. And they were describing at a news conference how they hand-delivered a tape of the cell phone conversation to Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the bipartisan ethics committee.
John and Alice Martin of Fort White, Fla., a school janitor and teacher’s aide active in their local Democratic party, said they overheard the conversation on a police scanner while driving to do some Christmas shopping. They taped it on a hand-held recorder and later turned it over to McDermott to “give it to somebody who was responsible,” Alice Martin said.
Last Friday, two days after the date the Martins said they turned over the tape, a transcript appeared in the New York Times, attributed to a Democratic congressman hostile to Gingrich.
Late Monday evening, the ethics committee released a letter indicating McDermott had attempted to deliver an audio cassette and cover letter to the committee at 4:33 p.m. Eastern time, less than an hour after the Martins’ news conference.
At the direction of GOP chairman Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., the material was refused and instead forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department’s criminal division, according to the letter.
On the tape, Gingrich, his attorneys and Republican leaders are heard on a conference call strategizing about how to undercut the ethics committee’s case against the speaker.
Although Democrats have used the conversation as evidence Gingrich was violating an agreement not to orchestrate a campaign against the ethics charges, Republicans have attacked the Democrats’ role in disseminating an intercepted private cell phone conversation.
Federal and state anti-wiretapping laws make it illegal to eavesdrop on cell phone calls, and it also is illegal to pass on the contents of illegally intercepted phone conversations.
The House’s fourth-ranking Republican, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, called on McDermott to resign or be expelled from Congress “if he is the source.”
McDermott, who last week had told reporters he first heard of the taped conversation through news reports, would not comment Monday.
In a news conference outside their lawyer’s office in Gainesville, Fla., the Martins said they gave an envelope containing the tape to McDermott on Jan. 8 while in Washington for the previous day’s congressional swearing-in ceremony.
“He took the envelope in his hand and said he would listen to it,” Alice Martin said.
The Martins said they regularly listened to radio chatter and cell phone conversations on their police scanner.
Alice Martin said they often carried a hand-held recorder with them to tape messages for their first-born grandson, who is due in January, and decided to record the politicians’ voices because “it would be neat for him to play the voices of the people who were important.”
Later, they decided to pass it on because “we just felt somebody needed to hear it besides us,” John Martin said. Their local congresswoman, Rep. Karen Thurman, a Democrat, returned a package including the tape unopened but suggested giving it to McDermott, he said.
John Martin, 50, is a former treasurer of the Columbia County Democratic Party and Alice, 48, is a former secretary of the county party.
Thurman essentially confirmed their account.
The ethics committee’s deliberations originally were to begin Monday with special counsel James Cole’s case against Gingrich. The speaker, accused of improperly using tax-exempt charitable funds for political purposes, has admitted he erred in not getting legal advice first and that he furnished false information to the panel.
However, after a Democratic news conference complaining about the hearing schedule, Johnson moved to push back and thus shorten potentially embarrassing hearings.
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