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Couple say they taped Gingrich call to preserve history

January 14, 1997

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ A pair of staunch Democrats said Monday they were thinking of history, not political skullduggery, when they taped a GOP strategy session about House Speaker Newt Gingrich off their police scanner.

Now John and Alice Martin have been swept into a political firestorm as dramatic as anything they ever watched on C-Span from their home in the tiny north Florida town of Fort White.

Democrats are angry that Gingrich was plotting his own ethics defense and Republicans want a federal probe of how the conversation ended up on the front pages of national newspapers.

The Martins could even wind up in trouble for intercepting and recording a cellular phone call in violation of state and federal laws.

The couple, longtime Democrats, told a news conference their fascination with national politics and monitoring a police scanner converged Dec. 21 as they were driving to do some Christmas shopping.

Martin said he has listened to the police chatter on scanners for more than 20 years. He had recently gotten a new one that could monitor the races at Daytona International Speedway.

On that December morning, they heard a phone conversation with some familiar voices on the scanner, listened for a few minutes, then flipped on a handheld tape recorder they had in the car.

``We thought it was just part of history, really,″ said Martin, a 50-year-old maintenance worker at Lake City Middle School.

They were eavesdropping on a conference call that included Gingrich, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas and several other Republican leaders, including Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who was using his cellular phone while vacationing in Florida.

``We’re going to have a grandson,″ said Mrs. Martin, 48, an elementary school teacher’s aide. ``We were thinking how neat it would be to play this tape for him to hear the voices of people who were important.″

But as they watched the news over the next few days, they began to realize the significance of the recording.

They said their congresswoman, Rep. Karen Thurman, recommended they turn over the tape to Rep. Jim McDermott, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.

The couple, both former officers in the Columbia County Democratic Party, went to Washington last week for the swearing-in of a favorite congressman. While there, they slipped past a cluster of television cameras at 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. ``He asked if there was a way to get in touch with us. My husband gave him his card.″

The New York Times published a transcript of the call on Friday. The newspaper said it obtained a copy of the tape from a Democratic congressman it did not identify.

Intercepting and recording cellular phone calls is against state and federal law. The state penalty includes up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine; the federal penalty includes up to a year in jail and an unspecified fine.

The Martins’ attorney, Larry Turner, acknowledged his clients could be in serious legal trouble. He arranged Monday’s news conference, attended by the Martins’ children, Amy and John Jr., to show they are just civic-minded Americans who thought they were doing their duty.

``They are like Mr. and Mrs. Smith going to Washington,″ he said. ``They are down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth people.″

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