Clinton ally in the dock for fraud

Click to follow
FOR THE past two weeks, the Santa Monica courthouse has been gripped by the spectacle of Susan McDougal - the Arkansas businesswoman who recently emerged from jail for her role in the presidential Whitewater scandal - defending herself against accusations that she embezzled more than $150,000 (pounds 90,000) from the conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife Nancy while working as their assistant in the late Eighties.

Reams of financial documents and credit card bills have stripped the mystique from the Mehtas' personal spending habits, much as the Kenneth Starr report has revealed Bill Clinton's more intimate secrets.

Thus we learn that Nancy Mehta, herself a former actress, became so enamoured of a mattress she slept on in a hotel in Italy that she spent tens of thousands of dollars having it shipped from the Swiss manufacturer to Los Angeles.

Then there are the contested purchases - everything from a computer to a Barbie doll - that Ms McDougal may or may not have bought for her own purposes with her erstwhile friend and employer's money. Did Mrs Mehta know she was paying to fix Ms McDougal's mother's teeth or to put her up in a Los Angeles hotel? No, was her unequivocal answer in court.

According to the prosecution, Ms McDougal spent as much as $10,000 a month on a credit card that Mrs Mehta did not even know existed. She then paid off the bills by forging Mrs Mehta's signature on her cheque book. "I thought, how could she pay $10,000 a month on this card?" Mrs Mehta testified. "Then I realised - I'm paying for it."

Ms McDougal's lawyers forced Mrs Mehta to admit that several employees were authorised to use credit cards. The picture that the defence is building up is of a household with little, if any, control over its finances, with everything run on verbal agreements.

Effectively, the case boils down to one woman's word against another. In court, they have styled themselves as polar opposites; the dark-haired Ms McDougal sporting a cream suit, while Mrs Mehta, a blonde, turned up in prosecutorial black. Judge Leslie Light, also a former actor, has added his own flourishes, apologising for his constant interruptions.

Although the two affairs have nothing to do with each other, Ms McDougal's reputation is inevitably coloured by her role in the Whitewater affair. She refused to testify against the Clintons over the long-running land deal and spent 18 months in jail for her pains. Now she faces 12 criminal charges, including fraud and failure to file tax returns, and could face another seven years behind bars if convicted for all of them.