Punishing Mmes. Stewart


If there’s a better villainess than the corporate multimillionaire who flouts the rules to save a few bucks, it’s the defense lawyer who flouts the rules by claiming a higher duty to her terrorist client. Their convictions matter differently in important ways, but Martha Stewart and Lynne Stewart illuminate just how full the extent of the law can get in the conservative 2000s. Similarities only begin with the coincidence of the name. The unusually zealous federal prosecutions of the two ultimately drive home the same message: Grandiosity can be fatal. It is important, of course, not to let resemblances obscure a key difference between the two Stewarts. Martha was punished in her role as an obscenely wealthy stock market gamer, someone society needn’t worry about too much. Lynne was punished in her role as a staunch advocate who would stand between a politically odious client and the awesome powers of the U.S. Department of Justice, someone a free society should care about very much.

A Manhattan jury convicted Martha in March 2004 of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to government investigators about her sale of stock in a friend’s company just before bad news about the company became public. She entered prison in October and should emerge on March 6, as Lynne prepares to battle on appeal her own potential incarceration for 20 years. The veteran criminal-defense lawyer was convicted last week, also by a Manhattan jury, for defrauding the government, conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, and two counts of making false statements—all in connection with her communications between her client, a convicted Islamic terrorist, and his followers.

No one has shown that either Stewart’s actions actually harmed anyone. Although Lynne Stewart apparently admits to having technically committed the acts, it is difficult to imagine that even the government believes she really wanted to visit violence on innocent people.

Both unprecedentedly aggressive pursuits begun under Attorney General John Ashcroft seemed intended not just to punish individual wrongdoing but to send pointed messages. In both cases, prosecutors initially overreached with charges that judges would later throw out. Both women essentially got smote for being cocky. Or, depending on one’s worldview—pro-capitalism or anti-authority—for doing what they believed necessary in support of a cause.

Martha Stewart’s cause was herself. It is a common misconception that she was convicted of the more serious crime of insider trading. She actually got caught doing what many NYSE comers probably do repeatedly over the course of a lucrative career: lying in an attempt to make herself look better. (Stewart has always denied the government’s version of events, which does contain a few holes, and is appealing her conviction.)

En route to Mexico on December 27, 2001, Martha received a phone message that her buddy Sam Waksal’s drug company, ImClone, was about to start trading sharply down. Stewart ordered her broker’s assistant to dump her ImClone stock in order to save about $45,000. In fact, it would be announced the next day that the company’s key application to the Food and Drug Administration for approval of a new drug was rejected. Government investigators began to probe suspicious ImClone trades and called Stewart to talk about it.

The type A mogul, perhaps panicking over her disproportionate—relative to the amount of money involved—stupidity, reacted by doing even more stupid stuff, such as altering her phone records and then ordering an assistant to alter them back. She and her broker claimed—and still claim—that they had previously agreed to an automatic sell when the stock hit a certain price, irking investigators, who disbelieved them. And, really getting the government’s goat, Stewart repeatedly assured the public that she had done absolutely nothing wrong.

Lynne Stewart’s cause was far loftier than Martha’s. A 1960s-era radical, she had for decades represented the most contemptible clients, believing that justice requires that everyone receive a vigorous defense. Her supporters insist she is being made an example for those who would defend today’s ideological enemies. In her case, that enemy is Omar Abdel Rahman, a/k/a the “blind sheikh,” an Islamic preacher serving life in prison for his involvement in a derailed 1993 plot to bomb New York City landmarks. New U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the convictions of Stewart and two other defendants would “send a clear, unmistakable message that this department will pursue both those who carry out acts of terrorism and those who assist them with their murderous goals.”

That statement makes Lynne Stewart seem quite sinister. But what emerges most clearly from the facts of her case—as with Martha’s—is a portrait of grandiosity. A Justice Department press release about the lawyer describes acts that would be comical if she weren’t facing two decades in prison. Stewart evidently facilitated forbidden conversations between Rahman and her co-defendant, a translator, during prison visits by uttering decoy phrases such as “chocolate” and “heart attack” and by “shaking a water jar and tapping on the table while stating she was ‘just doing covering noise.’ ” Secret jailhouse recordings have her later bragging to the translator that she could “get an award” for acting.

More seriously, she issued a June 2000 public statement on behalf of her client expressing his withdrawal of support for a cease-fire agreed to by his followers in Egypt. Prosecutors nailed Stewart for violating an agreement she had signed to restrict the sheikh’s communications. Stewart has claimed that the public statement was permissible because it was part of her client’s defense strategy. Moreover, the government’s tactics have raised concerns about violations of attorney-client privilege and of various constitutional protections.

“I see myself as being a symbol of what people rail against when they say our civil liberties are eroded,” she said after the verdict. “I hope this will be a wake-up call to all the citizens of this country, that you can’t lock up the lawyers, you can’t tell the lawyers how to do their jobs.” Perhaps the saddest delusion of all is her belief that lawyers in 2005 enjoy the same public regard as the civil rights lawyers of her youth.

In the other Stewart case, Martha’s alleged white-collar offenses were pretty minor. The sum involved was pennies in the greater scheme of financial crime, and analysts said she caused little if any harm to other stockholders. (Insider irony: The FDA eventually approved ImClone’s drug, and the company fared well.) Her sin was arrogance. In trying to control the damage control, the trial revealed, she seemed to elbow aside even her own lawyers at times. She also exhibited a delusional grandeur—if she announced everything was kosher, it would be so. No wonder she was convicted of trying to sugarcoat—or hot-glue—the truth.

In a way, Martha is paying for her grandiose ass-covering, while Lynne may pay dearly for her grandiose failure to cover her ass.

But anyone who admires a tough public woman has to give both of them points for sheer attitude. “I will fight on. I’m not giving up,” Lynne Stewart said. “I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right.” She spoke her political truth even when on the stand accused of supporting terrorism, declaring, “To rid ourselves of the entrenched, voracious type of capitalism that is in this country that perpetuates sexism and racism, I don’t think that can come nonviolently.”

Martha Stewart defiantly toted a $6,000 designer handbag to a trial about her avarice. Nor has she shrunk from addressing the case while behind bars. Her website features a “trial update” section with plenty of court documents, the most recent of which is linked to in the postscript of her online Christmas letter from prison.

A final too rich, though utterly meaningless, link between the two Stewarts: Renowned defense attorney Robert Morvillo led Martha’s team against Southern District prosecutors, while his son, Christopher, delivered the Southern District’s opening statement in its case against Lynne.