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.

December 23, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF Staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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.

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