Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Boehner presses on with cellphone suit

Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Despite no longer being in the House leadership, Rep. John Boehner served notice Tuesday he will plow ahead with a lawsuit against Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., over an alleged leak of a cellular phone conversation.

        Mr. Boehner, R-West Chester, had indicated after losing his leadership post in November that he might refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee.

        But Tuesday his attorneys filed another brief in the case in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

        Oral arguments are scheduled April 30.

        For the courts not to rule the leak violated Mr. Boehner's rights would be a major blow to privacy law, said his attorney, Michael Carvin of Washington.

        “It would be the first time an American court had said private conversations can't be kept private and you have a Constitutional right to disclose them even when they are stolen,” Mr. Carvin said.

        Mr. McDermott's attorney, Frank Cicero of Chicago, did not respond to requests for comment.

        Mr. Boehner charges Mr. McDermott violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act by leaking a transcript of a Dec. 21, 1996, call between him and other House GOP leaders to newspapers.

        Mr. McDermott argues he is protected by the First Amendment.

        It is the first time anyone can recall that one sitting member of Congress has sued another.

        Articles quoting parts of the conversation — in which there was discussion of how to handle the fallout from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics case — appeared in January 1997 in several major newspapers.

        Mr. Boehner was then chairman of the House Republican Conference, the fourth-ranking leadership position in the chamber.

        “We think there is a legal issue here as well as an ethical one. The congressman wants to see that his legal rights are vindicated,” Mr. Carvin said.

        The Justice Department has taken Mr. Boehner's side.

        Several major news organizations, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, have filed briefs on the side of Mr. McDermott.

        Mr. Boehner placed the call on his cellular phone to other GOP leaders while taking his family on a Christmas vacation to Florida.

        The call was intercepted by a pair of Democratic activists, Jim and Alice Martin of Columbia County, Fla., using their police scanner.

        A tape of the call made its way to Washington, where, Mr. Boehner argues, Mr. McDermott leaked it.


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