Ex-Va. GOP Head Gets Probation For Eavesdropping

Former state Republican Party executive director Edmund A. Matricardi (search) III was sentenced Tuesday to three years' probation and fined $5,000 for illegally intercepting a Democratic Party conference call.

In a steady, sound voice, Matricardi apologized before U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer for illegally accessing two calls among the state's top Democrats on March 22 and 25, 2002.

"I stand before you a humbled man. I made a mistake and I'm paying a terrible price for it. I accept full responsibility for my actions," Matricardi said, as his parents watched from a front-row seat a few feet behind him.

Matricardi said he did not know when he joined the call using access codes provided by a disgruntled former Democratic Party operative that he was breaking the law, but he acknowledged that it was a mistake nonetheless.

"I apologize to the governor and to the Democrats for listening to this call. I apologize to Virginians for this distraction. I apologize to my wife, to my little girls and to my parents," he said.

Spencer said he agonized over Matricardi's sentence.

"A number of things would have pushed it to jail time to send a message, but I tried to give Mr. Matricardi the individual treatment that he deserves," Spencer said. "The thing that concerned me is, I think of all the young Democrats and young Republicans forming on college campuses and getting ready to join the culture wars."

At one point, Spencer abruptly rebuked Matricardi's attorney, Steven D. Benjamin, as the defense lawyer opened his remarks by downplaying the illegality of Matricardi's actions.

"The crime you are to sentence Mr. Matricardi for is his use of a phone to listen to public officials conducting public business," Benjamin said, before Spencer cut him off.

"Talk about your client and talk about his future, and don't try to dodge blame, because if you do, you're going to tick me off," Spencer said.

As part of his sentence, Matricardi was also ordered to perform 180 hours of community service over three years.

The sentencing leaves Matricardi -- who oversaw the Republican Party of Virginia' (search)s day-to-day operations during three years of unparalleled ascendancy -- unable to hold public office or even vote. His law license has already been suspended.

Matricardi, in an unannounced appearance before Spencer on April 1, pleaded guilty to a single felony count of intercepting a wire communication. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to seek only probation and a fine, but no jail time.

Known for tirelessly tormenting Democrats, Matricardi admitted in his plea that he monitored a private conference call involving Democratic lawmakers, their aides and attorneys and, for a while, Gov. Mark R. Warner (search).

The Democrats were discussing their legal challenge to the Republican-controlled 2001 reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts, which helped the GOP leap from 52 of the 100 House of Delegates seats to 64 that same year.

In a summary of their evidence, federal prosecutors said Matricardi listened to and recorded the Democrats for about 2 hours.

Virginia State Police began investigating Matricardi the last week of March 2002 and searched his office at state GOP headquarters based on information they received from Republican Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.

In early April 2002, a Richmond grand jury indicted Matricardi on state charges, which were dismissed a month later when the FBI took over. In January, a federal grand jury indicted Matricardi on five felony counts, each punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Matricardi was appointed executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia in 1999, the year legislative elections gave his party control of the House of Delegates for the first time. With Republicans then holding the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, the GOP controlled every institution of state government.

One year later, Republican former Gov. George Allen unseated two-term U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb, the only Democrat in elected statewide office at the time.

While Democrats in 2001 took back the offices of governor and lieutenant governor, Republicans took control of the state's 11-seat U.S. House of Representatives delegation, increasing to eight seats from a five-seat minority.

After resigning his post in Virginia, Matricardi took a similar, behind-the-scenes job last summer with the South Carolina Republican Party, which was beset at the time by a Federal Election Commission (search) audit and struggling to pay its bills. Successful fund-raising efforts in last year's gubernatorial and Senate races left the party flush with cash, and nearly all the FEC's questions are resolved.

Matricardi fell in love with Republican politics as a child when an irate homeowner cursed him as he left campaign material on the doorstep.

"I thought to myself, 'This is so cool. I get to make grown-ups mad and not get in trouble for it,"' he said with a laugh during an interview in 2000.

Matricardi routinely toiled late into the night at state party headquarters, often aiding GOP candidates in research on their Democratic opponents. Two years ago, he filled 30 three-ring binders with information on Warner's background to help Republican Mark L. Earley's losing race for governor.

Two weeks after Warner took office, Matricardi stood glumly at the rear of a Capitol press conference as the new governor and Republican legislative leaders pledged bipartisan cooperation in handling the state's budget imbalance.

"This is sad," he muttered. "I'm the last partisan left."