Domestic goddess Stewart gets five months, but walks free pending appeal

Martha Stewart, the celebrity chef who built a catering company into a multimillion-dollar media empire, walked free from court yesterday despite being sentenced to five months behind bars for lying about a suspicious stock-trading deal.

Martha Stewart, the celebrity chef who built a catering company into a multimillion-dollar media empire, walked free from court yesterday despite being sentenced to five months behind bars for lying about a suspicious stock-trading deal.

The entrepreneurial queen of domesticity was found guilty in March of trying to hide details of the sale of 3,000 shares of a biotech company a day before its share price plummeted and left her $51,000 (£27,000) richer. Yesterday, she was given a suspended sentence, pending appeal. US District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cederbaum remained unmoved by Stewart's stammering plea to "remember all the good I have done" and ordered her to pay a fine of $30 000 and to serve a further five months of home confinement for lying to federal investigators.

"Today is a shameful day," a haggard-looking Stewart protested in court. "It's shameful for me, for my family and for my company." But as she left the building the former media giant seemed to regain some of her former strength and confidence, complaining that a "small personal matter" had been blown out of all proportion. She showed no sign that she intended to go quietly.

"I'll be back," she promised. "I'm not afraid. Not afraid whatsoever. I'm very sorry it had to come to this. More than 200 people have lost their jobs at my company, and as a result of the situation, I want them to know how very, very sorry I am, for them and their families." After she was sentenced, shares in Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia jumped from $9.30 to $12.12, and settled back to $11.04.

Judge Cederbaum rejected a defence request to send Stewart to a halfway house for the first five months, saying: "Lying to government agencies during the course of an investigation is a very serious matter." But the sentence was unexpectedly lenient. Stewart had been expected to get 10 to 16 months.

Her former stock broker Peter Bacanovic, 41, was jailed for five months yesterday for conspiring with her to hide the reason for a suspicious trade in her account. He was convicted in March of conspiracy, making false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice.

Before her murky financial dealings were exposed, Stewart was chief executive of a $1bn media empire and among America's most-admired women, with television shows and a publishing empire. After her 2003 indictment, she resigned as head of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and after her conviction in March, she surrendered her seat on its board.

Her fall from grace has done little to hurt her standing among Stewart devotees. In the weeks before her sentencing, hundreds of fans sent letters to the judge seeking mercy, and many gathered yesterday to wish her well. "Hold your head high, Martha!" one called as she went into the court. A woman named Ruth Ritter wrote to the judge in careful script: "I am alone now with my pets. Just seeing Martha doing her crafts, cooking, gardening, was a great comfort to me."

Stewart's legal problems began in 2001, when, in a brief phone call on her way to Mexico, she sold her 2,928 shares in the biotech company ImClone Systems a day before negative news about its future sent its stock price tumbling: she saved $51,000. Stewart and Bacanovic claimed she sold because of a preset plan to unload the stock when it fell to $60.

If Stewart's appeal is unsuccessful, her five-month spell in Danbury women's prison will be a drastic lifestyle change, although she may be able to prove her reputation as domestic diva is well-earned. She will see her salary drop from $673 an hour to between 12 cents to 40 cents for doing her chores in the kitchens and gardens; she will have to swap her designer dresses for the prison uniform of khaki combats.

Her days, which used to be taken up with social and business functions all over the world are likely to be spent mowing the lawn or doing the laundry. Most of the prisoners at the Connecticut institute, which boasts such glittering alumni as Leona Helmsley, the hotel magnate and tax cheat, are drug offenders. Stewart could also be sent to the minimum-security prison camp in Alderson, West Virginia, which has more than 1,000 inmates. Most of the women there are also drug offenders and they perform similar work to those at Danbury.

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