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Starr Grand Jury Confronted With the Moment of Tripp

July 01, 1998|ROBERT L. JACKSON and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Having heard her voice for months, the 23 members of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's federal grand jury who are investigating the Monica S. Lewinsky case finally met Linda Tripp on Tuesday.

Flanked by three lawyers and her two grown children, Tripp swept into the federal courthouse to begin explaining under oath and behind closed doors how she came to secretly tape her friend Lewinsky's conversations about her relationship with President Clinton--and in doing so detonated a presidential controversy.

Jurors who already had heard as much as 20 hours of recorded Lewinsky-Tripp phone talks now must decide over the next few days how to assess this witness and her evidence.

Is she a scheming Clinton hater who manipulated a young friend into making damaging or exaggerated statements and thus should be discounted? Or is she a woman who learned of a crime and felt compelled to report it?

That judgment, as much as any, could shape the outcome of the independent counsel's investigation of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter.

After Tripp's full day of testimony, Anthony Zaccagnini, her attorney, said he was pleased with how it was going. Zaccagnini said Tripp told him during a break: "I find it very easy to answer the questions posed to me by the prosecutors and the grand jury."

Tripp is expected to testify again Thursday.

The prosecutors questioning her certainly were eager for the long-awaited session to go smoothly. Tripp, 48, is the most prominent cooperating witness in Starr's investigation and her tapes are the leading known evidence suggesting that Lewinsky and Clinton had a sexual relationship. In sworn statements in the now-dismissed Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment suit, both Clinton and Lewinsky denied having a sexual relationship.

Tripp's testimony is seen by some as clearing the way for a possible indictment of Lewinsky on charges of perjury or obstruction of justice. Negotiations have stalled between Starr and Lewinsky's new legal team over a deal that would grant immunity to the former White House intern in exchange for her testimony.

"You're going to see her, I think, as a vehicle to authenticate tapes and testify about the circumstances in which they were recorded," Henry Hudson, a former U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., said of Tripp.

"Most importantly for Ken Starr, he wants to be able to pin her down for the record if there's ever an indictment" of Lewinsky.

Without testimony from a target of the investigation--Lewinsky or Clinton--Starr needs Tripp to convince grand jurors that her taped conversations with Lewinsky are authentic and that Lewinsky's taped statements about her relationship with the president are true. Discredited tapes would deliver a serious blow to Starr's investigation. If, however, Tripp succeeds in convincing the grand jury that the tapes are credible, that could pose serious problems for the president.

That is why Clinton's defenders have worked to cultivate skepticism about Tripp's motives and methods in taping her conversations. The president's attorneys and others have pointed to Tripp's grievances against the Clinton White House and her interest in selling a book of critical revelations about what went on while she was employed there, saying that her actions raise questions about her motives and seriously undermine her credibility.

Tripp had been an executive assistant in the Clinton White House, one of only two holdovers from President Bush's staff, before she was transferred to the Pentagon in August 1994.

"This woman is carrying a lot of baggage into the grand jury room," a former federal prosecutor in two Democratic administrations said Tuesday.

Asking that his name not be used, this attorney, now in private practice, said that Starr's prosecutors "may have a real problem establishing [Tripp's] credibility because she obviously did a disreputable thing [by] taping her friend's confidences and perhaps drawing her out in these conversations."

"Tripp comes across as a woman who is not trustworthy because she was really not trustworthy to a friend," he concluded.

Tripp recorded all but one of the tapes from her home phone in Maryland, where it is illegal to tape-record someone who has not given consent.

Tripp has been working closely with Starr's office and is eager to repair her own image. On Monday she gave a brief newspaper interview and on Tuesday she appeared at the courthouse with a hairstyle and make-over apparently intended to soften her features.

A more substantive problem for Starr may be that Tripp's testimony about Lewinsky is hearsay. "She can't really testify to Monica's veracity, whether those [tape-recorded] statements are true or not," a former Justice Department official said.

Perhaps the greatest significance of Tripp's testimony, he added, is "it signals that Starr is concluding the Lewinsky phase of his investigation, that he's approaching his end game."

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