WASHINGTON – For Rep. Jim McDermott, it was the most expensive telephone call he never made.
McDermott, a Washington state Democrat, faces fines and penalties topping $800,000 for leaking an illegally taped telephone call a decade ago.
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear McDermott’s request to review the case. The decision, made without comment, ends a legal fight that had stretched for nearly 10 years.
The court left in place a federal appeals court ruling that McDermott had acted improperly in giving reporters access to a recording of a 1996 telephone call in which Republican leaders discussed the House ethics case against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
The decision also upholds a previous court ruling ordering McDermott to pay House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, more than $800,000 for leaking the taped conversation. The figure includes $60,000 in damages and an estimated $800,000 in legal costs for Boehner, who filed suit against McDermott in 1998.
McDermott created a legal defense fund in 2000 and has been receiving contributions ever since. The fund received nearly $32,000 in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to records in the House clerk’s office, but its current balance was unavailable.
McDermott’s spokesman said Monday he did not know how much money was in the account. The exact amount McDermott owes is the subject of a separate dispute being heard in federal court.
Despite the setback, McDermott reacted with characteristic defiance, declaring in a statement that he was disappointed by the court’s decision but proud of his actions.
“I knew when I asked the Supreme Court to review this case that the odds were against me,” he said. “Nonetheless, I thought that the constitutional principles presented – the First Amendment protection of truthful speech and the separation of powers doctrine – warranted the court’s attention. I pursued this case based on my belief in the people’s right to know, and I continue to believe it was my sworn responsibility to vigorously defend that right.”
Boehner was among several GOP leaders heard on the December 1996 call, which involved ethics allegations against Gingrich. Then the House speaker, Gingrich was heard on the call telling Boehner and others how to react to allegations. He was later fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House.
A Florida couple taped the call and handed it over to McDermott, who leaked the tape to two newspapers, which published articles on the case in January 1997.