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Couple say they taped Gingrich call to preserve history

January 14, 1997

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ John and Alice Martin said they wanted to capture a bit of history when they taped a Republican strategy session about Newt Gingrich’s ethics problems off their police scanner.

But the tape, which has the speaker discussing how to react to ethics charges the same day he promised not to orchestrate a response, has the Martins in a political brouhaha and facing possible federal charges.

``We thought it was just part of history, really,″ Martin, a 50-year-old school maintenance worker, said at a news conference Monday.

Mrs. Martin said this morning on NBC’s ``Today″ show that she and her husband ``didn’t know that at the time″ that they were doing anything illegal by taping the conversation.

``I just knew if I never used it in a court of law ... if it was never used against someone in a court of law then I wasn’t breaking the law. And basically, I thought the (House) Ethics Committee wasn’t a court of law,″ Martin told NBC.

Mrs. Martin, 48, said they taped the conversation for their grandson.

``We were thinking how neat it would be to play this tape for him to hear the voices of people who were important,″ said the elementary school teacher’s aide.

Democrats are angry that Gingrich was plotting his own ethics defense despite a pledge not to counterattack the House Ethics Committee.

Meanwhile, Republicans are demanding a federal probe of how reports of a private conversation ended up on the front pages of national newspapers, and insisting the Martins violated laws against intercepting and recording cellular phone calls.

The tape has been turned over to the Justice Department’s criminal division.

The taping was quite an accomplishment for a couple from the tiny north Florida town of Fort White. Their lawyer described them as civic-minded people, ``like Mr. and Mrs. Smith going to Washington.″

The whole thing began while the Martins, longtime Democrats, were headed to nearby Lake City to do some Christmas shopping, listening in their car to a handheld police scanner.

Martin said he’s been monitoring police chatter for more than 20 years and had recently gotten a new scanner for his birthday.

The Martins, avid fans of political shows, thought the phone conversation that came on the scanner had some familiar voices. So they decided to tape it with a recorder they had in the car.

What they heard was a conference call involving Gingrich, House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and several other Republican leaders. Also on the line was Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who was using a cellular phone while heading to Marco Island in southwest Florida.

That was that, they said, until they saw the news over the next few days and realized the significance of the recording.

They contacted Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Fla., who recommended they give the tape to Rep. Jim McDermott, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.

The Martins, active in the teachers’ union and both former officers in the Columbia County Democratic Party, headed to Washington last week for a political function. While there, they said they went to McDermott’s office and gave him the tape.

``He took the envelope in his hand and said he would listen to it,″ Mrs. Martin said. And the couple thought that was the end of it, she said today on ABC’s ``Good Morning America.″

``We felt we had turned it over to the people who knew best what to do with it,″ Mrs. Martin said on the program.

It didn’t take long for reports of the taped conversation to wind up on the front page of The New York Times on Friday.

``We have no idea″ how that happened, Martin said on the ``Today″ show.

Since then, Republicans have called for McDermott’s resignation from the committee for using illegal information and Democrats have accused Gingrich of double-dealing.

The call was taped the day Gingrich admitted he violated House rules. The speaker acknowledged he should have sought specific legal advice about using nonprofit groups to accomplish political goals, and admitted that under his name information was submitted to the committee that falsely denied his political committee’s involvement in a college course he taught.

While the Justice Department has not indicated whether anyone will be charged in the taping, intercepting and recording cellular phone calls is against state and federal law, punishable by prison time.

The Martins’ lawyer, Larry Turner, said the couple should not be charged.

``These folks are Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen and did what we want citizens to do,″ Turner said.

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