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Friday, October 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:21 A.M.

McDermott gets $600,000 tab in leak of illegal phone tape

By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times Washington bureau

Rep. Jim McDermott, a Seattle Democrat
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A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has ordered Congressman Jim McDermott to pay $60,000 plus attorney fees that could total more than $545,000 to a Republican congressman who sued McDermott for leaking his cellphone conversations to news reporters.

In a harshly worded decision received by attorneys this week, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan said McDermott's "willful and knowing misconduct rises to the level of malice in this case."

It is unclear how McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, will pay for the award if he decides not to appeal it further. He turned down an offer to settle the case for $10,000 last summer.

McDermott's lawyers were reviewing the court's decision, said his press secretary, Mike DeCesare.

A popular liberal lawmaker in a safe Democratic district, McDermott is expected to win re-election easily and has only $45,000 in his campaign account.

McDermott's legal-defense fund, formed in the late 1990s to fight the lawsuit, has about $10, according to his office.

Rep. John Boehner sued over release of tape.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, filed a civil suit against McDermott in 1998. The case began with Boehner's cellphone conversation in the parking lot of a Waffle House restaurant in northern Florida.

During a conference call with Republican leaders, Boehner talked about the pending Ethics Committee probe of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich over the way Gingrich funded a college course he taught via satellite through a tax-deductible political-action committee.

A Florida couple intercepted and taped the call and gave it to McDermott on Jan. 8, 1997.

At the time, McDermott was the highest-ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, which handles complaints against members of Congress.

McDermott then leaked the tape to The New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The New York Times published a front-page story Jan. 10, 1997, with the headline: "Gingrich is Heard Urging Tactics in Ethics Case."

Three days later, McDermott resigned from the Ethics Committee after the Florida couple identified him as the recipient of the tape.

Gingrich later was fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House. He resigned his seat in November 1998.

The couple who gave the tape to McDermott later pleaded guilty to unlawfully intercepting the call and were fined $500 each. The Justice Department has never pressed charges against McDermott.

Boehner sued McDermott, charging the eight-term lawmaker violated state and federal wiretapping laws.

McDermott won the first legal round when a federal judge ruled his actions were protected by the First Amendment. The case went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which bounced it back down to lower courts.

In August, Judge Hogan determined McDermott "participated in an illegal transaction" when he accepted the tape from the Florida couple, and his actions weren't protected by the First Amendment.

Prior to the August ruling, Boehner said he was approached by a lawmaker on McDermott's behalf to broker a settlement.

In an interview during the Republican National Convention last August, Boehner said he set three conditions for McDermott: a $10,000 donation to charity, an admission of guilt, and a letter of apology to the Speaker of House. Discussions broke down, and Hogan submitted his decision Oct. 22.

"The Court finds that (McDermott's) conduct was malicious in that he intentionally disclosed the tape to the national media in an attempt to politically harm the participants through an invasion of their privacy," Hogan wrote.

"(McDermott's) argument that he was acting in the public interest by exposing official misconduct is unsupported by the evidence."

Boehner's office said a settlement now was out of the question.

"This is full vindication of our view in this case," said Boehner's chief of staff, Mike Sommers. "We're looking forward to getting this case behind us."

Sommers said Boehner spent about $545,000 in legal fees, paid from his campaign accounts.

"It's all been referred to legal council," said DeCesare, McDermott's press secretary. "It's a legal decision, and it needs to be analyzed."

McDermott's legal-defense account has paid about $350,000 in attorney's fees since the case began, and now owes $21,600 in legal bills, DeCesare said.

Asked if McDermott would embark on a fund-raising campaign to pay the legal bills, DeCesare replied: "The only next step is to let the legal team review the judge's decision and make a recommendation. It doesn't make sense to speculate on anything else."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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