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Political Snooping Alleged In Virginia Police Investigate a Top GOP Official in Eavesdropping

RICHMOND - State and local police are conducting a criminal investigation into whether the Virginia Republican Party's executive director violated state law when he listened in on a telephone conference of Democratic leaders discussing legal strategy for a politically sensitive redistricting case, officials said today.

Edmund A. Matricardi III, the state GOP's senior staffer for the past three years, is the subject of a joint investigation by the Richmond commonwealth's attorney and Virginia State Police, according to law enforcement sources, GOP leaders and officials in the administration of Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

State officials said police are investigating whether Matricardi, a lawyer, violated the law against intercepting telephone conversations when he gained access Friday to a conference call among more than 30 Democrats. Most of the participants were state legislators, joined by Warner and two senior aides at various points.

Under Virginia law, monitoring a telephone call without proper authorization -- the prior consent of at least one person on the call -- is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, or 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

State police officers equipped with a warrant searched Matricardi's office at GOP headquarters on Wednesday, but it was not clear whether they confiscated any evidence. Law enforcement sources said police had not obtained the tape recording that they believe Matricardi made of the call but said they had a copy of a GOP transcript of the Democratic session.

As of late today, police had not interviewed Matricardi.

Matricardi, who grew up in Fairfax County where he got his start in politics as a youngster distributing GOP campaign leaflets, declined to comment, saying: "I'm fine. Everything's fine."

The investigation was stunning news in the capital's political community and to Republican and Democratic partisans alike in far-flung corners of the state. The Virginia GOP chairman announced that his office was cooperating with police, while Democrats expressed outrage that the opposition couldeavesdrop on sensitive deliberations.

Warner was on a family ski vacation in Colorado and could not be reached. His spokeswoman, Ellen Qualls, said Col. W. Gerald Massengill, the state police superintendent, briefed Warner's chief of staff, William H. Leighty.

"Since it's a criminal matter, the governor has no comment," Qualls said.

Gary R. Thomson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, said he and employees at GOP headquarters "have been contacted by people in authority. I and the staff at RPV have been cooperating. Our doors are open."

Neither Massengill nor David M. Hicks, the Richmond commonwealth's attorney, would comment on their joint investigation.

The episode was the latest in a string of bizarre eavesdropping cases that have punctuated Virginia politics in recent years, including a purported listening device at the state Capitol and an intercepted phone call of then-Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) that bruised the reputation of then-U.S. Sen. Charles. S. Robb (D), whose staff ended up with a tape of the call.

Last year, members of the state Senate complained that operatives for then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) were listening in to their conversations with constituents. A state police inquiry found no wrongdoing.

No government official or political leader was able to say with certainty what sparked the current investigation, though some Republicans said the existence of notes and verbatim quotes from the Democratic parley touched off immediate concerns about whether they had been properly obtained.

Two of Matricardi's GOP colleagues said they believed a Democrat had provided the Republican Party official with the telephone number needed to access the conference call, a convenient method for holding an electronic meeting in a state as large as Virginia.

Democrats said they doubted that one of their own would have done such a thing, particularly on redistricting, an issue that has embroiled both parties in recent weeks and was the focus of the hour-long conference call.

This month, a Circuit Court judge overturned the 2001 redistricting plan authored by the Republican-led General Assembly, touching off a dispute between Warner, the state's top Democrat, and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, the leading Republican in state government.

After jousting for several days over who would conduct the state's appeal -- and who had the authority to make that decision -- Warner and Kilgore agreed that the Republican would carry the case forward to a higher court.

Democratic lawmakers described the first portion of their conference call as a detailed discussion of legal strategy with their Washington-based lawyers, which was followed by an unusually blunt conversation with Leighty and Warner's in-house counsel. Several legislators said they complained to Warner's aides that the governor was letting the party down by reaching any accord with Kilgore.

When Warner came on the line, the lawmakers took a more subdued tone, but nonetheless urged the governor to take a more aggressive stance in the redistricting case that could ultimately reconfigure all 140 districts for seats in the General Assembly, they said.

Because Kilgore would represent the interests of the GOP lawmakers who drew the redistricting map, any involvement by Matricardi in private Democratic deliberations could infect the case as it goes forward, Democrats contended tonight.

"That was an attorney-client discussion about a very significant ruling, and those kinds of conversations are sacrosanct," said state Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), who took part in the call. "If the other side's employee -- their agent -- knows our legal strategy, that has significant ramifications. It's bigger than just skulduggery or dirty tricks."

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