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Tripp tapes up tattered image Pariah: Legal/public- relations team tries to tame popular opinion, keep criminal charges at bay and return her to the Pentagon.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ten months after news of the presidential sex scandal broke, President Clinton has been impeached. Kenneth Starr continues his investigation. Monica Lewinsky has lined up a book contract and exclusive TV interview. And Linda Tripp remains the odd woman out.

Her role in exposing the scandal that has led to the president's impeachment has left Tripp at the bottom of public opinion polls. Seen as disloyal and a tattletale for her actions in taping one-time friend Lewinsky, she is shunned by some longtime neighbors and friends and is largely confined to her suburban Columbia home, unable even to return to her Pentagon office.

But all that will change if "Team Tripp" has its way.

The group of four lawyers, a public-relations expert and a gaggle of young legal assistants is doing damage repair, working to overcome her image as "Treacherous Tripp," as she has been called by TV's Geraldo Rivera.

"Linda's been vilified in all this," said Joe Murtha of Ellicott City, one of Tripp's attorneys. "We're trying to change that."

Tripp is trying to help herself, too, losing weight and posing for family photographs that her team hopes will be released publicly soon. These "new Linda" photos are being distributed through the New York-based photo agency Gamma Liaison, which has sold exclusive rights to an unnamed client and made them unavailable for use by anyone else.

According to her attorneys and public-relations adviser, Tripp's goal is to return to the "normal routines of her life."

For the attorneys, the main concern is to keep Tripp out of jail -- a Howard County grand jury is investigating whether her taping of phone conversations with Lewinsky violated state law. But they're just as determined to improve a reputation that has been badly tarnished, most recently by supermarket tabloid stories featuring early photos of the once-slimmer woman at the beach and on her wedding day.

Speaking on more than 50 mostly conservative radio and television talk shows across the country, Murtha and Anthony Zaccagnini, another Tripp attorney, have made pleas for support -- both emotional and financial.

In soliciting funds for Tripp's defense, Murtha calls Tripp's actions "valiant" and "courageous."

"She's done it all at the risk of jeopardizing her job and exposing herself to criminal liability," Murtha said. "Without competent counsel, she would be in danger. We're depending on the generosity of people to pay her legal bills."

In recent weeks, Murtha said, some 50,000 pieces of direct mail -- including a personal letter from Tripp -- went out across the country to possible donors.

All donations go into a blind trust -- run by Tripp's brother-in-law and a retired insurance broker who is an associate of Zaccagnini's -- to pay her mounting legal fees. Murtha and Zaccagnini refuse to discuss what their client owes or the amount of the trust, but say they have been paid "a few times."

Tripp's personal makeover effort seems to be part of the strategy.

Following a stringent workout program at the Columbia Athletic Club, she has reportedly lost 35 pounds -- weight her attorneys say she gained after being depressed over the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, whom she knew well.

The new photos of Tripp with her son and daughter are meant to portray her as a normal parent with children's college bills to pay rather than a duplicitous political operative. Someone more like the person Tripp described in a one-time public statement months ago: "a suburban mom, who was a military wife for 20 years and a faithful government employee for 18 years.

"I'm you," she said. "I'm just like you. I'm an average American who found herself in a situation not of her own making."

Tripp has been working from her home in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. In charge of a Pentagon program to show off the U.S. military forces to celebrities, Tripp recently got a raise in pay to $90,000. Her attorneys are convinced that her latest assignment -- writing a manual of how to do her job -- was ordered so that if her supervisors decide to fire her, the program will continue.

Though the Pentagon has told her to continue working at home, her attorneys are trying to get Tripp back in her office.

A Tripp appearance at the Pentagon Monday made headlines and set off speculation that she'd returned to work there. But according to Col. Richard Bridges, a Pentagon spokesman, Tripp was merely there to meet with her supervisor and submit a draft of a report she was asked to write. There is no change in her job status, he said.

Zaccagnini terms the Pentagon's refusal to let her return to her office "clear punishment" for her role in the Clinton scandal.

Her relations with neighbors have become somewhat strained, Zaccagnini said. Three neighbors -- people with whom she used to play bridge -- were subpoenaed to testify recently before the Howard County grand jury investigating Tripp. "People are reluctant to talk to you when you start bringing them into something," Zaccagnini said.

Philip J. Coughter of Washington, who calls himself Tripp's "spokesman," says the scrutiny has been unrelenting. Even simple trips to the grocery store or the local gym expose her to gawking.

"People say she's out looking at million-dollar houses because they see her out driving in the countryside, but she's doing just what she likes to do -- go on drives in the country," Coughter says.

Tripp and her attorneys also receive hate mail, but her team brushes it off.

"We just don't respond to it," Murtha said.

Coughter, though, tells of "overwhelming" responses from supporters across the country praising Tripp's actions through e-mail, letters and phone calls. One woman from the Pacific Northwest, he says, sent a check to her defense fund accompanied by a letter explaining how the money represented three hours' worth of her income from hanging wallpaper.

"The American people are not as dumb as [people] would like to believe," says Coughter, a former Pentagon employee who worked with Tripp. "We can't go anywhere without people wanting to show their support for her."

Murtha and Zaccagnini have participated in radio and TV broadcasts in such places as Pittsburgh, Colorado Springs, Colo., Phoenix and Seattle. Most callers want to know how the investigation by state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli is progressing. If convicted, Tripp could face up to five years in jail -- and a $10,000 fine.

"We've looked for a friendly environment," Murtha said in a speech last month to the Howard County Bar Association. "Linda has had complete control over the media appearances."

But Tripp hasn't made any appearances herself, or given interviews, and Murtha says there will "definitely not" be any until Montanarelli's investigation is complete.

Murtha adds, though, that even though "there's no deal," Tripp's been "making herself available to talk to people about the possibilities" of interviews later."

Tripp dined Dec. 15 at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington with NBC-TV correspondent Jamie Gangel. She has also done some "off-the-record, get-to-know" interviews, Murtha says, with Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" and CNN's Larry King.

While life on "Team Tripp" can have its moments of drama, the day-to-day reality can be decidedly unglamorous.

One day, for instance, while "Team Tripp" labored in Murtha's office while the county grand jury was in session, Murtha volunteered to pick up lunch.

Leaving his somewhat cramped office in a historic house, he walked the 200 yards to the Howard County Circuit Courthouse in Ellicott City, where most of the drama surrounding Tripp's wiretapping case is unfolding. During his short walk, he was accosted by news cameras and reporters hoping for any tidbit on the grand jury proceedings. As cameras flashed in his face, he gave a brief statement, which basically amounted to "no comment."

Fifteen minutes later he was back in his office -- with four packs of orange crackers, three Diet cokes and a Sprite purchased from courthouse vending machines.

"Here's lunch," he chuckled.

Pub Date: 12/23/98

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