They joined Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. because they thought it was the biggest and the best insurance company around, and a good place to make a lot of money.

They pushed the company's products without question. They did what they were told. They trusted their bosses.But when Met Life was hammered by regulators nationwide last year for misleading customers in order to sell life insurance, the company didn't defend them. It blamed them.

And now, the insurance company should make amends. Those are the claims of 58 former Met Life salespeople who worked at the company's Southeastern Headquarters Office in Tampa before they quit in the wake of the company's nationwide sales scandal.

"We all trusted Met Life," said former salesman David Cimino. "We all bled Met Life. We all worked hard for Met Life, and we thought they'd protect us.

"But not only did they not defend us, they blamed us," he said. So Mr. Cimino and the other 57 former Met Life salespeople have hired a public relations firm to contact reporters and tell their side of the story.

They have also hired an attorney, Chris Ferguson of St. Petersburg, and say they plan to file suit this week against Met Life for fraud, defamation and negligence, among other claims.

"We've tried to negotiate with them on several occasions," Mr. Cimino said. "But they wouldn't listen to us."

Mr. Cimino declined to discuss details of the planned lawsuit, or what the group was seeking in damages.

At Met Life's New York headquarters, company spokeswoman Nancy Peskin said Met Life officials familiar with the disgruntled former employees' claims could not be reached for comment.

In March 1994, Met Life was fined $20 million by regulators nationwide and forced to repay millions more to customers who claimed in a class-action suit they were misled into buying life insurance they didn't want.

The company's sales - and its reputation - began suffering even before then, after allegations of misleading practices stemming from Met Life's Tampa office first surfaced two years ago.

Originally, Met Life said the misleading practices were used only by salespeople in its Tampa office. But later, newspaper reports and investigations showed they were used by Met Life agents nationwide.

Mr. Cimino said he and the other employees were forced to quit Met Life

because it was too tough to make a living selling anything with the company's name on it.

He said some of the 58 agents have had to file for bankruptcy protection. Others are still struggling to pay bills, even though most have new jobs.

"You're talking about trying to make a living at a company where our book of business was destroyed, our reputation was destroyed and at a time when nobody wanted to buy a Met Life product," said Mr. Cimino, 29, now an independent life insurance salesman.