Focus: Found out, and found guilty. It's curtains for Martha Stewart
Furnishings and food, yes, but even she cannot sell lying as a designer choice, says David Usborne. And she can't do her show from a cell
Sunday 07 March 2004
When the verdicts came in - guilty on four counts - high-priced defence lawyer Robert Morvillo, who has the looks of a bit-part gangster in a Mafia movie, leaned into the ear of his client, the home-making superstar Martha Stewart, and whispered: "We have failed you. I am sorry."
It was a gracious apology at a moment of horrible calamity. But as Americans began yesterday to digest the news that Stewart, for more than a decade their country's undisputed arbiter of domestic taste, was actually going to go to prison, many were surely thinking something else. She had failed herself.
The spectacular fall from grace of Stewart, 62, whose media and franchising empire was until recently worth well over a billion dollars, will live on as an American parable not so much of the perils of greed, but of the certain punishment that comes when you stubbornly fail to tell the truth.
What she did, after all, seems almost piddling. It was on 27 December 2001 that she received word via her Merrill Lynch broker, and co-defendant at the trial, Peter Bacanovic, that the owner of a bio-tech company in which she had stock, and who was also a friend, was offloading his shares. He was doing so because he knew that the US government was not, as had been expected, going to give approval to a new drug which the company had developed.
She had been given an inside tip and she took advantage of it. She asked for her shares be sold too. The negative news did indeed come from the government the next day, and Stewart was surely pleased to know that she had saved herself about $50,000 (£27,000), even though that was loose change to her.
In her years appearing in television shows, presiding over magazines and books, Stewart developed the catchphrase "If you do that, it will be a good thing." But what she proceeded to do, as federal officials began to investigate the sale of her ImClone stock, was a bad thing. She, with the help of Bacanovic, covered up. She lied to investigators and made up stories.
And so it was that on Friday afternoon, after a trial that had lasted six weeks, the jury brought her down. She was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and two counts of making false statements. Bacanovic was similarly convicted of four counts but was acquitted on a fifth.
So what now? Stewart is first of all surely pondering her mistakes. Last year, for instance, she had the chance to plead guilty to the charges in a plea deal with the prosescution. Of course, her reputation would have taken a hit, but probably she would have escaped a term in prison
Both Mr Morvillo and Stewart have declared their intention to appeal against the convictions. They may do so, but most legal analysts have predicted that an appeal would fail. Almost every intervention during the trial by Judge Miriam Cedarbaum was in favour of the defence, they point out.
Stewart must report to the probation authorities within a week and then await a sentencing hearing on 17 June. While technically her convictions could carry a combined prison term of 20 years, it is more likely, under federal sentencing guidelines, that she will be sent away for between 15 months and 24 months. Nor will she be in a barred cell, but in the less intimidating setting of a low-security "white-collar" prison.
Meanwhile, she must watch as her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, copes with the devastating fallout of her conviction. Shares in the company dropped 23 per cent late on Friday and are likely to slide much further tomorrow. The brand of the company is Stewart. How, experts wondered, would it survive now that that brand meant "convicted felon"?
By yesterday, the CBS television station in New York had already pulled the plug on Stewart's daily cooking show. "If she goes to prison, the longer she's there, the harder the logistical problems for the company," said Linda Killian, a money manager at Renaissance Capital in Connecticut. "She can't do a cooking show from a cell."
Stewart is a polestar of American culture, the Delia Smith of not only cookery but also style. Few are the homes in America that have not dabbled with her recipes, do not have one of her books or magazines on the coffee table or some of her huge line of products from Kmart in their linen cupboards.
No wonder public opinion yesterday about her demise reflected a mixture of awe, glee and some real sadness. "Sometimes people get too powerful and it catches up with them," said Kay Clendaniel, 61, shopping in Chicago. "This was just greedy, that's all. How much money do you really need?"
But Alexis Handelman, who runs a bakery in Napa, California, belongs to the school that believes the authorities unfairly targeted Stewart because she is rich and famous. "I am heartbroken - I think they used her as an example," she said. "She's a tough businesswoman and people have trouble accepting that."
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