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Tripp Indicted Over Taping of Lewinsky Calls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eighteen months after she earned worldwide notoriety as Monica S. Lewinsky’s confidant, Linda Tripp was indicted Friday on two felony charges related to secretly taping her phone conversations with the former White House intern.

Tripp, 49, who has been both vilified and extolled for igniting the scandal that nearly brought down President Clinton, becomes the only major figure to face criminal charges in a sordid national drama that has scarred dozens of others along the way.

The indictment handed up by a Howard County grand jury accuses Tripp of knowingly violating Maryland wiretap law by taping a 1997 conversation without Lewinsky’s knowledge and then illegally disclosing its contents to Newsweek magazine. If convicted, she could get a maximum of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine on each count.

Such an indictment is virtually unheard of in Maryland, prosecutors acknowledged, and Tripp’s lawyers and publicist seized on its unusual nature to charge that their client is the victim of a politically inspired “vendetta.”

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Her indictment, said defense attorney Stephen M. Kohn, will have a chilling effect on other whistle-blowers who might consider exposing public corruption.

“Linda Tripp did nothing wrong,” he said.

Tripp was not arrested after the indictment, and she faces criminal arraignment in coming weeks. She remained in seclusion throughout the day Friday after calling in sick to her job at the Pentagon. She has not been feeling well the last several days, said Joseph Murtha, one of her attorneys, and “obviously this was not a good day to try to recuperate.”

Tripp expected that she would be indicted by the grand jury, Murtha said, but even so, “she was disappointed.”

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Tripp has maintained that she taped the conversations with her one-time friend because Lewinsky was pressuring her to lie about the illicit relationship between the intern and the president. The tapes, Tripp said, were a way to corroborate her version of events.

It was exactly one year before Friday’s indictment that Tripp stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in Washington and appealed for public sympathy, declaring to the nation: “I’m you.”

Nevertheless, Tripp was skewered in the public arena over the perception that her own desire for political vengeance had driven her to betray her friend. Tripp, an aide in the George Bush White House who had been summarily transferred to the Pentagon by Clinton administration officials, had been angered by a Clinton attorney’s public portrayal of her as untruthful.

The tapes she made set in motion the legal and political saga that ultimately led to Clinton’s impeachment last year. Through intermediaries, Tripp went to the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr with allegations that Clinton and his associates illegally had conspired to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky, and she turned over the hardest evidence she had: 20 hours of tape-recorded conversations.

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Tripp recorded 17 phone conversations with Lewinsky, a fellow Pentagon worker who had befriended her. Transcripts of Tripp’s tapes, later made public by the House Judiciary Committee, revealed gossipy and occasionally salacious talk about everything from Lewinsky’s nicknames for the president to gifts she exchanged with him and the infamous blue dress that she wore during one encounter with him.

The indictment against Tripp is limited to a conversation between the two women taped on Dec. 22, 1997, partly because prosecutors think they can show that Tripp taped that particular call even after her attorney warned her that such taping was illegal. That could be critical because, in the case of wiretapping, ignorance of the law is a valid defense, Maryland prosecutors said.

In that Dec. 22 call, made after Lewinsky learned of her subpoena in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton, Tripp said that Lewinsky was “gonna lie under oath” about her relationship with the president.

Tripp’s attorneys held out the possibility of reaching a plea agreement before the case goes to trial--possibly not before next year. But if the case does reach a courtroom, with Lewinsky as a likely witness, it threatens to revisit many of the details that embarrassed Clinton and forced him to admit publicly to an “inappropriate” relationship with the intern.

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Starr’s office granted Tripp immunity from federal prosecution. But that immunity agreement did not cover Maryland prosecutors, who began actively investigating Tripp’s taping a year ago.

Howard County State’s Atty. Marna McLendon said that the grand jury’s decision to indict Tripp sends an important message about the need to vigorously pursue all violations of the law in Maryland.

“The public is watching,” McLendon said.

If prosecutors had failed to bring an indictment in such a high-profile case of wrongdoing, she said, “it would be a terrible message to send to the public.”

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McLendon defended the integrity of the investigation. She referred the case last year to Maryland State Prosecutor Steve Montanarelli, who recommended last week that the grand jury consider an indictment.

But the process evoked comparisons to McCarthyism from Tripp’s attorneys, who maintained that Maryland prosecutors are using technical readings of the law to “destroy” a woman who should be remembered as “one of the most important whistle-blowers in American history.”

Tripp had not only a right, but a civic duty to come forward with knowledge of possible wrongdoing by top government officials, said her chief spokesman, Philip Coughter. “Sadly,” he said, “this is her reward.”

Defense attorneys said they hope to show that Tripp’s taping of the Lewinsky conversations is protected under federal law, which allows individuals to tape their own calls without the consent of the other party on the line. The federal standard, they argued, should supersede the Maryland statute, which makes such taping illegal without the consent of both parties. Such taping also is illegal in California.

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