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Verdict against congressman in free-speech case is upheld

The high court ruled that Rep. McDermott was wrong to leak an intercepted phone call.

WASHINGTON - For Rep. Jim McDermott, it ends up being a very expensive telephone call.

McDermott (D., Wash.) faces fines and penalties topping $800,000 for leaking an illegally taped call a decade ago involving Republican leaders.

The Supreme Court refused without comment yesterday to hear McDermott's request to review the case, ending a nearly 10-year legal fight.

The court left in place a federal appeals ruling that McDermott had acted improperly in giving reporters access to a recording of a December 1996 conference call in which Republican leaders - including John A. Boehner, now the House minority leader - discussed the House ethics case against then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.).

The decision also upholds a ruling ordering McDermott to pay Boehner (R., Ohio) more than $800,000 for leaking the taped conversation. That includes $60,000 in damages and the rest in legal costs for Boehner, who sued McDermott in 1998.

On the call, Gingrich was heard telling Boehner and others how to react to ethics allegations against him. Gingrich was later fined $300,000 and reprimanded by the House.

A Florida couple who overheard the call on a police scanner - Boehner was taking part by cell phone nearby - taped it and gave the recording to McDermott, then the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee. The congressman in turn leaked it to two newspapers, which published articles on the matter in January 1997.

McDermott created a legal-defense fund in 2000. The fund received nearly $32,000 in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to records in the House clerk's office, but its current balance was unavailable.

McDermott's spokesman said yesterday that he did not know how much money was in the account. The exact amount he owes is the subject of a separate dispute in federal court.

McDermott reacted with characteristic defiance, declaring in a statement that he was disappointed by the high court's decision but proud of his actions.

"I knew when I asked the Supreme Court to review this case that the odds were against me," he said. "Nonetheless, I thought that the constitutional principles presented - the First Amendment protection of truthful speech and the separation of powers doctrine - warranted the court's attention. I pursued this case based on my belief in the people's right to know."

Boehner was equally certain that he was correct.

"As I've said many times: When you break the law in pursuit of a political opponent, you've gone too far," he said in a statement.

Over the years, Boehner said, he made efforts to settle the case. He insisted on three conditions: that McDermott admit he was wrong, apologize to the House, and donate $10,000 to a charity. McDermott refused.

Boehner's lawyer, Michael Carvin, said the decision vindicated his client's contention that McDermott "had no First Amendment right to disclose someone else's stolen speech."

In Other Action: Age Bias, Marcos

Supreme Court justices

signaled that they might limit the ability of workers in discrimination lawsuits to present evidence that other employees were victims as well. The justices questioned a lower-court ruling against

a Sprint Nextel Corp. unit in an age-bias lawsuit by

a former company manager. The lower court had set aside a jury verdict favoring the company, saying five other Sprint employees should have been allowed to testify about alleged age bias against them. In oral arguments yesterday, several justices voiced concern that bias trials might become unmanageable affairs.

The court agreed

to consider a dispute over money stolen by Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a case that pits the island government against almost 10,000 victims of the Marcos regime. Marcos died in 1989. The Philippines claims the $35 million at issue is its own and asked the justices to take the case after two U.S. courts had awarded the stolen funds to the victims.

- Inquirer wire services