Tripp set to step back into public view

Appearance in S.C. to be her first in year

May 30, 2000|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

With her criminal case slowly becoming a distant memory, Linda R. Tripp is tentatively entering public life again, after months of avoiding the news media and even the courtroom where her lawyers and state prosecutors sparred over her fate.

On Saturday, Tripp will make her first public appearance in more than a year. She is scheduled to address supporters at a conference in South Carolina sponsored by FreeRepublic.com, which advocates such positions as repealing the income tax and abolishing the popular election of U.S. senators.

The conservative Internet site has backed Tripp throughout her criminal prosecution, with its members posting thousands of messages bashing Maryland prosecutors, chastising President Clinton and hailing Tripp as a hero.

Tripp's associates say this is her way of thanking them.

"It speaks volumes that she has actually accepted the invitation and will be there," said one of Tripp's defense lawyers, Joseph Murtha.

Since the charges against her were dropped, news organizations across the country have sought interviews with the Columbia resident, whose taped phone conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky exposed a scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment.

But Tripp and her advisers said those invitations will have to wait until after her speech in Charleston, S.C., where she is expected to criticize her prosecution on state wire-tapping charges.

Brian L. Buckley, an attorney for the Free Republic who will introduce Tripp at a banquet Saturday night, said he expects Tripp's speech to make headlines.

"What she says will be newsworthy," he said.

The speech is closed to the news media, but Buckley says Tripp and others are re-evaluating the blackout.

Tripp's associates have declined to speculate on her future.

Intrigue and rumors continue to surround the woman whose taping nearly brought down a president. Some even want her to announce her own candidacy.

"She has received feelers about running for public office," Buckley said, declining to elaborate.

Tripp was indicted on two counts of violating Maryland's wire-tapping statute for taping a Dec. 22, 1997, conversation with Lewinsky. That tape and others exposed a sexual relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton, leading to his impeachment in December 1998.

Last week, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli dropped the wire-tapping case against Tripp, citing a judicial ruling that severely limited his evidence. He is scheduled to make it official tomorrow in Howard County Circuit Court.

Tripp's last public appearances were during television interviews in February 1999 and in her "I'm you" speech outside a federal courthouse in July 1998.

Her appearance Saturday was arranged several months ago. Someone from the recently formed South Carolina chapter of the Free Republic, which has 15 to 20 members, called Tripp's lawyers and they set up the event, said Nadja Lee Russell, the chapter's spokeswoman.

"We're very interested in what she has to say," Russell said. "She stood up and didn't let the White House beat her down. I don't think I could have done the same thing."

Russell said she did not have an estimate on how many people would come to hear Tripp speak. Admission for the speech alone is $50.

State Democratic Party officials say they hope the speech is well attended and publicized.

"I think at this point, most people don't take her seriously," said Danielle Clermont, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Democratic Party. "If she represents the conservative side, that makes us look better."

Tripp will cap a day of speakers at the conference, to be held at the Middleton Inn, a hotel and conference center that overlooks the scenic Ashley River.

Tripp is not being paid for her appearance, but her legal defense fund will receive any proceeds after conference operating costs are covered, said her lawyers and Free Republic officials.

With her criminal case finished, Tripp is using that fund to finance a civil suit against the Clinton administration, alleging violations of her privacy.

The Free Republic was founded in 1996 by Jim Robinson, a Fresno, Calif., software maker who says his Web site has more than 25,000 registered members. A die-hard Tripp supporter, Robinson says he regularly updates Tripp's Web site (www.lindatripp.com) with news from the Free Republic.

Robinson said he started the Web site because he was disgusted with Clinton's "treasonous" campaign fund raising.

"We are against government abuse," he said.

Besides advocating repeal of the income tax, the Free Republic also supports abolishing the 17th Amendment, which established the popular election of U.S. senators in 1913. Before that, state legislatures chose their two representatives to Congress' upper chamber. The Free Republic believes that electing senators drains power from the states.

It also says the United States should leave the United Nations and kick the world body out of the country and its New York headquarters.

The Free Republic has run into legal trouble over its posting of newspaper and magazine articles for its members to discuss. The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post are suing to stop the posts, arguing that it siphons readers and advertising revenue.

Robinson and his attorney argue that the newspapers are trying to stifle his free speech rights and that they are acting on behalf of the Clinton administration, a charge the papers' attorney denies.

In March, a federal judge ruled against the Free Republic, but Robinson is planning to appeal.

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