Tripp fearing consequences of her act

June 21, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SHE'S BEAUTIFUL, isn't she? Linda Tripp, who took a young woman's trust and turned it into a national spectacle, suddenly worries about her own criminal vulnerability. Having undressed Monica Lewinsky and the president of the United States for the whole world in pursuit of a book deal, Tripp now glances in the mirror and sees herself naked.

It's not a pretty sight. She worries she could be prosecuted for secretly tape-recording the late-night intimacies, real or imagined, of Lewinsky. So last week, Tripp nervously huddled with her lawyers, Joseph Murtha and Anthony J. Zaccagnini, over the possibility of action by state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

Thus commences the oldest game in the legal world. The client's edgy, so the defense lawyers call the prosecutor for a little buddy-buddy chat. They ask, Can't we drop this whole business? Can't our poor client get on with her meek little life, and let the country focus on the vitally important national business of whether Bill Clinton got lucky when it wasn't even prom night?

The prosecutor, Montanarelli, made his position clear back in February: In Maryland, it's a felony to tape a telephone conversation without the consent of both parties. Clearly, Lewinsky had no idea she was spilling her words for posterity.

But, said Montanarelli last winter, he would prefer to wait before making up his mind about criminal action. For one thing, he didn't want to collide with the investigation of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor in Washington who spends by the millions and proceeds with the approximate speed of a snail with a hernia.

Also, Montanarelli sees the legal pitfall here: In Maryland, the offender must have knowledge that secret telephone taping is illegal. Tripp can claim she didn't know, and who's to say she didn't?

But that's only part of the law. Maybe Tripp didn't know it was illegal when she was doing the actual taping -- but maybe she knew it was illegal by the time she was turning over the tapes to Starr. At that point, if she knew she'd broken the law, she was committing a felony. It wipes out any ignorance she'd had earlier, since she still had the opportunity to erase the tapes, or destroy them, and not violate anyone's private life. But she didn't, and so she could be prosecuted for it.

And this is what ran through Montanarelli's mind last week, when Tripp's lawyers asked if he would drop the thought of any investigation. No, he would not, Montanarelli said. His position hadn't changed. He's still deferring to Starr -- and still keeping his options open.

"That's what I said in February," Montanarelli said last week, during much confusion over his plans. "They [Tripp's lawyers] said, 'How long are you gonna wait?' I said, 'Whatever's reasonable.' They said, 'What's reasonable?' I said, 'I can't answer at this time.' "

All of which, amazingly enough, is mere afterthought. What Linda Tripp did to Monica Lewinsky, what she did to all notions of friendship and privacy, and what she did to our sense of creeping national voyeurism, are beyond legal measure.

For a time, Tripp painted herself as a patriot. We now know this was a cover. She'd been meeting with New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg in hopes of writing a book about sex in the White House. Goldberg felt Tripp didn't have enough material.

Then Tripp mentioned Lewinsky and the late-night conversations. Bingo! At Goldberg's urging, Tripp went to a Radio Shack store and bought a $100 tape recorder to begin gathering her material.

For a time, there was much talk of this story transcending mere sex, that it involved all sorts of perjury issues. On the tapes, it was widely reported, both Clinton and pal Vernon Jordan urged Lewinsky to lie about their relationship.

But, in the premiere issue of Brill's Content, the new media magazine, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who heard the tapes, tells editor Steven Brill, "There is one passage where Linda, knowing the tape is going, says, 'He knows you're going to lie; you've told him, haven't you?' She seems like she's trying to get Monica to say it. But Monica says no."

So here we are, months into the investigation of Clinton and Lewinsky, and what's its focus? That the president can't control his libido? We knew that when we hired him for the job, didn't we? That he asked Lewinsky to lie? But she says it didn't happen -- and she said it when she thought only her good "friend" Linda Tripp was listening.

Whether Tripp is criminally prosecuted for her tape-recording is strictly an afterthought. She's guilty of violating the confidence of a dim young woman who imagined she was her friend, and she's guilty of conning the whole country. She told us she was a patriot, when she's just another hustler.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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