Notes on Tripp are mostly sour

Letters: A Maryland prosecutor hears from people all over the country about the wiretap case, and three out of four fault him.

January 22, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

From all corners of America, dozens of people have written letters on scrap paper, letterhead and even a Christmas card to vent their anger at one man: State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.

They are upset that Montanarelli is "hounding" and "harassing," "persecuting" and "prosecuting" Linda R. Tripp on state wiretapping charges.

One writer suggests that Montanarelli should die; another calls him a "pimp"; still another includes his photograph with the caption, "Liar."

About 130 letters, obtained by The Sun under the Maryland Public Information Act, have arrived at the state prosecutor's office in Towson since February 1998, when Montanarelli began looking into whether Tripp illegally taped White House intern Monica Lewinsky's conversations about President Clinton.

They portray an interesting slice of the American psyche and what possesses people from Oregon to New York to write about the prosecution of a Columbia woman accused of illegally taping a single telephone conversation.

Most of the letter writers said they wanted to get something off their chest. Just ask James Giancola, 71, a retired restaurant owner in Las Vegas, Nev.

Giancola, a Republican, recalled seeing a Tripp-related story in the newspaper last month, so he decided to send Montanarelli a card displaying a photograph of a little girl thumbing her nose at the camera.

"You are going to lose this case and look like a monkey in the process. I feel you're a disgrace to the Italian people," he wrote.

Giancola says he feels bad for Tripp, who has been savaged for her role in the scandal.

She blew the whistle on high-level corruption, Giancola says, and was simply trying to protect herself. Writing the letter made him feel better.

"God bless her," Giancola said. "She deserves a medal."

Polite beginnings

Many of the letters begin "Dear Mr. Montanarelli" and go on to accuse him of wasting taxpayer dollars, participating in a nationwide conspiracy and using his office for political intimidation. One suggests that he has helped the justice system sink "to the sewer level!" Another writer sent one page -- 30 times by fax -- with the words: "Shame, Disgust and Nauseating!"

For his part, Montanarelli says he reads every single letter and shrugs off the criticism.

"They are addressed to me, and I read them," Montanarelli said. "I don't expect everyone to agree with what I do. I think if they knew me personally, they would not venture those opinions of me."

He should take heart. About 25 percent of the letters were positive, applauding his determination.

"I am really glad you're taking her to trial and so are many people I talk to," proclaims one letter writer from Gambrills. "Don't let Linda Tripp squirm out of it."

Arriving in batches

The letters, faxes and e-mails from ordinary Americans have arrived in batches.

About 40 were delivered within days of Tripp's indictment in July on two counts of violating the state's wiretapping statute; 30 arrived after the highly publicized hearings last month on whether prosecutors gathered their evidence without using Tripp's immunized testimony to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Tripp's tape-recordings from her Columbia home exposed a sexual relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. The tapes led to Clinton's impeachment in December 1998.

Others involved in the case have also received piles of mail.

Legal advice for lawyer

Tripp's Web site (www.linda tripp.com) posts dozens of notes from supporters. Her attorney, Joseph Murtha, says he has received several letters and his client has accumulated thousands. Though some have sought his autograph, Murtha says, most letter writers are giving him unsolicited legal advice from across the nation.

"Some people have taken a lot of time to research the Maryland statute," Murtha said.

But he doesn't read all of them. "If I read everything, I would run out of time," he said.

Most experts seem surprised at the relatively small number of letters Montanarelli has received, especially after the intense feelings the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal generated.

"This is probably the most publicized minor crime in the last two years," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental studies and author of "Feeding Frenzy," a book about how the news media cover politics.

"The people who are most anti-Clinton would naturally be inclined to defend her," he said. "The people who were most opposed to the impeachment process are inclined to call for her head. Linda Tripp is arguably a central figure in all this."

Outrage to sympathy

The letter writers agreed with that assessment, saying they wrote to Montanarelli for various reasons, ranging from outrage to sympathy. Some even threatened to boycott Maryland to get their way.

Dennis Lowry, 53, of Indianapolis, was so disgusted by the prosecution that he wrote he would no longer allow members of his Boy Scout troop to stay in Maryland when they visit Washington, D.C., every summer.

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