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House minority leader wins $1 million plus in suit

  • Story Highlights
  • Suit originates from illegally intercepted phone call leaked to the media in 1996
  • House minority leader wins $1 million plus in lawsuit against Democratic lawmaker
  • Judge rules on fees after U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Democrat's challenge
  • Judge earlier found Rep. James McDermott violated federal wiretapping law
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From Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Minority Leader John Boehner was awarded more than $1 million in legal fees Tuesday in perhaps the concluding chapter of his politically charged lawsuit against Democratic Rep. James McDermott.

The case dealt with an illegally intercepted phone call in 1996 involving Boehner that later was handed over to McDermott, who then leaked it to two newspapers.

Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled after the Supreme Court in December refused to hear the broader constitutional challenge by McDermott over whether he has legal protection as a lawmaker.

Hogan earlier had found the Washington Democrat violated a federal wiretapping law and ordered him to pay $60,000 in damages to Boehner, along with "reasonable" attorney fees.

It is believed to be the first time a Capitol Hill lawmaker has successfully sued a fellow member.

"Congressman McDermott broke the law, and as a result, he shattered the bonds of trust between our institution and the men and women we represent in the halls of Congress," said Boehner in a statement Tuesday.

"I remained committed to this case in order to begin restoring those bonds, and to uphold the belief that no one -- including members of Congress -- is above the law."

In a statement after the judge's decision, McDermott said the legal fight was worth it and that the judgment against him was "a small price to pay in defense of so fundamental a principle, and freedom, as the First Amendment." He added, "I am proud of my role in defense of the First Amendment."

The Ohio Republican filed the lawsuit in 1998, two years after the embarrassing phone call involving GOP party leaders was intercepted.

McDermott said that since he did not do the actual recording, he was shielded because of his political office. Boehner countered that his personal privacy was violated.

The call occurred in 1996, when then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, was about to admit wrongdoing in an ongoing House ethics subcommittee investigation.

Gingrich was accused of claiming tax-exempt status for college courses he taught that had political purposes.

Gingrich had agreed to issue an apology and not criticize Democrats in exchange for not having potentially embarrassing public hearings on the matter.

Boehner was one of several high-ranking GOP congressmen on the conference call to discuss political strategy.

According to court transcripts, Gingrich is heard praising a Republican staffer who was formulating a rebuttal to charges made by the Democrats that Gingrich had violated ethics rules.

The legal twist came when a Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, intercepted Boehner's cell phone off a police scanner in their home and began recording.

Weeks later, the Martins gave the tape to McDermott, then ranking Democrat on the ethics committee. The couple believed they would have immunity by turning it over to lawmakers.

McDermott then played the tape to reporters from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, which pledged anonymity over their source.

House counsel earlier had advised members not to accept the tape after it initially was given to the couple's Florida congresswoman.

The Martins later pleaded guilty to a federal wiretap violation charge and were fined. Boehner then sued McDermott for disclosing an "illegally intercepted" call under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

The Washington state lawmaker was sued as a private citizen and, as a result, could not invoke constitutional protections he might have received as a congressman performing his official duties.

The House ethics committee in 2006 wrapped up its internal probe, saying McDermott "violated ethics rules" but chose not to punish him.

The case has bounced back and forth between three federal courts, with Hogan granting Boehner damages and legal fees now totaling about $1.1 million. The judge said McDermott engaged in "willful and knowing misconduct" that "rises to the level of malice."

A federal appeals court upheld the judgment, concluding that since McDermott knew the call was illegally recorded, he was not shielded from liability.

The Democrat established a legal defense fund in 2000 to help pay for the costs related to the litigation.

Boehner and McDermott cited previous, seemingly competing high court rulings in their appeals.

Boehner pointed to a 1995 decision that said officials "in positions of trust" have a higher duty not to disclose sensitive information on the job.

McDermott countered that a 2001 Supreme Court opinion gave radio commentators immunity from prosecution over an illegally recorded tape from an anonymous source.

Eighteen news organizations -- including CNN, the four broadcast networks, The Associated Press and The New York Times -- earlier had filed a legal brief backing McDermott, saying the decision could seriously hamper the ability of reporters to talk with anonymous sources.

Gingrich later was fined and reprimanded by the House, and he resigned unexpectedly in early 1999.

A special prosecutor later concluded he violated federal tax laws in connection with the college courses he taught, but the Internal Revenue Service cleared the organizations connected with the courses of any wrongdoing. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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