Stateline Story

Eavesdropping Row Could Paralyze Virginia Politics

If it doesn't end soon, Virginia's first major political scandal in a decade over alleged eavesdropping on a telephone conversation about redistricting -- could destroy already brittle relations between Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

The scandal erupted early last month when Democrats accused Ed Matricardi, the executive director of the state Republican Party, of secretly monitoring two conference calls about a Democratic lawsuit challenging Virginia's newly drawn political boundaries.

The Richmond City commonwealth's attorney -- a Democrat -- immediately began investigating the case and a grand jury soon indicted Matricardi on wiretapping charges. Matricardi resigned his party post immediately, hoping to quiet criticism of the GOP.

But just days later, Democrats said the number of a cell phone used by the chief of staff to Republican House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., was on a list of participants in one of the conference calls

And one day after that, Republican House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith alerted Republican Attorney General Jerry Kilgore that one of his aides might "know something" relevant to the case.

Wilkins and Griffith suspended their aides, but this failed to still Democratic howls. Democratic State Party Chairman Larry Framme has compared the scandal to Watergate, a botched Republican break-in of the Democratic Party's national headquarters in 1972. that ultimately led Republican President Richard Nixon to resign.

"This is a godsend for the Democratic caucus in the House. They have been downtrodden and emasculated (by the Republican majority), and they will use this endlessly," says Larry Sabato, a well-known University of Virginia political scientist.

House Minority Leader Frank Hall of Richmond has led the rhetorical assault on the embarrassed Republicans, who in turn have condemned Matricardi's actions. Matricardi says he was invited onto the conference call, so what he did was not illegal.

Warner, the first Democrat elected governor of Virginia in more than a decade, has avoided leaping into the fray. The Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly, and without their support, he could leave office with little to show. So after condemning eavesdropping as "wrong," Warner has kept quiet.

"Warner's been smart about this," Sabato says. "He has not added much of anything to the rhetorical excess ...He understands when a political opponent commits suicide, you stand aside and let him."

Analysts and politicians on both sides of the aisle say the longer the uproar lasts, the more bitter next winter's 45-day session of the Virginia legislature could become, and the harder it could be for Warner to get anything done. However, most Republicans believe the controversy will peter out in a month or two, and say it should not affect next year's session.

"I don't see this causing a lot of tension between the two parties," says Republican state Sen. Bill Bolling of Hanover County. "Clearly the Democrats will try to reap some advantage from it, but that's expected."

But two wildcards remain legal action or an extended investigation. Should the state Supreme Court uphold a lower court ruling that the GOP mishandled redistricting, then Virginia could have an unscheduled legislative election this fall. Sabato says that would surely keep the scandal alive, and poison the legislative atmosphere next year.

The second possibility is more likely. Federal officials said Wednesday (5/9) that U.S. prosecutors and the FBI would assist in the eavesdropping case. Everyone involved says the glacial pace of most federal investigations could keep the political pot boiling for the foreseeable future, which in turn could paralyze any meaningful action on Warner's agenda for the Old Dominion.