Tripp judge and media age

Expert: Diane O. Leasure, presiding in the high-profile Howard County case, is using a consultant to help in dealing with the press.

March 29, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

As lawyers prepare to argue another set of motions today in the criminal case against Linda R. Tripp, they will be treading on worn legal ground.

Yet, behind the scenes, the Howard County Circuit judge overseeing the case has quietly taken some inventive approaches to dealing with a high-profile trial in the media age. Judge Diane O. Leasure is consulting with a public relations specialist, providing thick packets of information to reporters and posting her rulings and other filings on the Internet.

"It's very imaginative," said Charles E. Moylan Jr., a judge on the state Court of Special Appeals. "I can recall no other instance of an actual media consultant."

Referring to the Internet postings, Moylan said, "That is probably the smart thing to do to get into the 21st century."

From the beginning, Leasure was worried about the news media getting out of control, especially in light of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Enter Harry Bosk.

In November, Bosk started a public relations company, after working for a year as a spokesman at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Through a friend, he heard that Leasure might need help.

Leasure and Bosk met, but the judge had some bad news: She couldn't pay him.

"She said she didn't want any court funds spent on this," Bosk said. "She said they were looking for somebody to do this pro bono."

Bosk agreed to help, as long as he could use the case to get more clients. So far, he has reviewed news releases and helped Howard Circuit Court Administrator John Shatto decide what to put in media packets.

"I made a few suggestions," Bosk said.

Shatto said the court has spent "several hundred dollars" on the Tripp case, mostly in making photocopies for press packets and the plastic courtroom passes reporters are required to wear.

The media packets don't resemble those dispensed during high-priced advertising campaigns.

Instead, Shatto and Leasure focused on the basics: a blue folder, stuffed with motions, fact sheets, contact information, index cards for reporters to submit written questions to Leasure and a brochure, "Visitors Guide for Howard County."

Officials were able to cut costs on some copies, Shatto said, because they have been posting filings on the Internet (www.courts.state.md.us), which is state-run and free.

The Web site also displays a brief biography of Leasure. "Judge Diane O. Leasure is 47 years old and married. She and her husband are parents of a fourteen year old son."

The site also apparently is meant to help television and radio reporters: Leasure is pronounced (Lay-sure), it says.

Leasure and Shatto also established a telephone update line, 410-313-3053, for those who don't have computers.

"Access to the court by the public and media is part of our mission," Shatto said.

While reaching out to reporters and the public, Leasure also has restricted their presence at the courthouse, forbidding reporters from conducting interviews in courtroom hallways and warning the public about "any item on their person or exhibit any sign which, in the opinion of the Court, may tend to influence any juror or affect the orderly administration of justice."

Tripp was indicted in July on two counts of violating Maryland's wiretapping law for tape-recording a telephone conversation Dec. 22, 1997, with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then having her lawyer disclose the contents of that recording to Newsweek magazine.

The disclosure of the tape and many others Tripp made revealed a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and President Clinton, who was impeached in December 1998.

If convicted, Tripp could receive 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Her trial is scheduled for July.

Today, Tripp's lawyers will be asking Leasure to toss out the indictment, saying the evidence gathered by state prosecutors was tainted by immunized testimony Tripp gave to federal authorities investigating Clinton.

State prosecutors have conceded that some of their evidence was tainted, but say the vast majority was gathered without Tripp's protected information. They are asking Leasure to let the case proceed to trial.

The lawyers battled it out at a November hearing, then another in December that lasted a week when state prosecutors produced witnesses, including Lewinsky, to prove their case was not tainted.

As those hearings progressed, the press contingent grew, with a dozen television satellite trucks in the courthouse parking lot in Ellicott City.

More than 70 reporters, from national broadcast outlets to national magazines and local weekly newspapers, requested credentials to cover the proceedings, and Courtroom 1 was packed as Lewinsky took the stand.

Most courtroom observers are not expecting a crush of reporters and onlookers today for the motions hearing, which will center mostly on legal issues.

Tripp's lawyers have said their client likely will not show up, and no high-profile witnesses are expected to testify. Leasure is not expected to rule today.

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