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McDermott: Public had right to know
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott says his eight-year dispute with House Majority Leader John Boehner over an intercepted phone call is not personal, but involves a crucial right of voters to know what their leaders are doing.
"Unfortunately, it's portrayed in the paper as Boehner v. McDermott. It really is the government versus the people," McDermott, D-Seattle, said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.
In a 2-1 opinion Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld a lower-court ruling that McDermott had unlawfully obtained a copy of an illegally intercepted phone conversation between Boehner, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and other House GOP leaders in December 1996.
McDermott has acknowledged leaking a tape of the call to The New York Times and other news organizations.
The appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling ordering McDermott to pay Boehner, R-Ohio, about $700,000. The figure includes $60,000 in damages and more than $600,000 in legal costs.
"The third person in line to be president was plotting a deception on the [House] Ethics Committee and the American people in private," McDermott said, referring to Gingrich, who was heard on a 1996 call telling House Republicans how to react to ethics charges against him.
"The people have a right to know that," McDermott said. "John Boehner says people have no right to know, because it was done in secret."
McDermott said he has not decided whether to appeal. The nine-term congressman sounded defiant as he cast the taping case as an important defense of the public's right to know.
"This is fundamental," he said. "It's not a simple fight between two members of Congress. The story is whether people have a right to know what is going on in government. Are we going to stand and fight for the rights of the people?"
Boehner told reporters last week he was reluctant to file his 1998 lawsuit — a rare case pitting one member of Congress against another.
Boehner was vacationing in Florida in December 1996 when he had the conversation on his cellphone from a restaurant parking lot.
Boehner, then chairman of the House Republican Conference and now House majority leader, discussed strategy with other GOP leaders after a finding by a House ethics panel that Gingrich had violated House rules in his use of tax-exempt organizations.
A published transcript of the tape showed Gingrich directing how lawmakers should react to the ethics charges — on the same day he had promised not to orchestrate a response.
A Florida couple used a scanner to record the conversation and gave a tape to McDermott, who leaked the contents to The Times and other publications. The couple, John and Alice Martin, later pleaded guilty to unlawfully intercepting the call and were fined $500 each.
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