Helmsley to begin serving 4 years for tax evasion

April 15, 1992|By David Treadwell | David Treadwell,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- With her sentence for tax evasion upheld yesterday, self-styled hotel queen Leona Helmsley said she was "prepared to abide by the law" by going to prison today.

Helmsley is to report to a federal prison hospital in Kentucky after an appeals court upheld her four-year sentence. The court rejected arguments by her attorney that the term would amount to a "life sentence" for her and a "death sentence" for her ailing husband.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a unanimous decision that a lower court judge had not abused his discretion in denying Helmsley's appeal of her sentence. She is scheduled to surrender to authorities on the same day that millions of Americans file their income taxes.

Helmsley's attorney, Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated Harvard Law School professor, contended at a hearing by the three-judge appellate panel that serious illnesses had "dramatically cut" her life expectancy since the sentence was imposed in 1989.

In addition, Mr. Dershowitz argued, Helmsley's husband, Harry, is so ill that he is certain to die if he is separated from his wife's companionship and care.

"Leona Helmsley is receiving a life sentence [and] her husband a death sentence," Mr. Dershowitz said. "We're arguing not that the original sentence was wrong, but that circumstances have changed."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Hellerer contended that permitting her to avoid prison would "make a mockery of the law" because the 71-year-old businesswoman remains active, travels regularly, appears on talk shows and has not relinquished command of any part of her vast financial empire.

As for her 83-year-old husband, Mr. Hellerer said, he is not bedridden or hospitalized, he travels regularly to Florida and "with or without her, he will have the best medical care that money can buy."

"The end has come," Mr. Hellerer added.

Helmsley was not in court, but her publicist later issued a statement in which she said "I've learned of the court's actions. I accept the judgment."

Asked outside court if his client was prepared to go to jail, Mr. Dershowitz replied: "She's not prepared to kiss her husband goodbye tomorrow and never see him again."

She was convicted in 1989 of conspiring with her husband to cheat the government out of $1.7 million in taxes over a three-year period by masking personal expenses, including renovations on their country home in Connecticut, as business expenses.

Her husband also was indicted in the case but was declared incompetent to stand trial.

During Helmsley's trial, her former maid testified that Helmsley had once bragged: "Only the little people pay taxes."

She has remained free on $25 million bail, but the appeals of her conviction ran out in February when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Leona Helmsley's ailments include hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure.

In court papers supporting her appeal to be allowed to perform community service instead of going to prison, Mr. Dershowitz also had argued that she had received "vile, anti-Semitic" letters from the racist Aryan Brotherhood threatening to put out a "cripple contract" to mutilate and disfigure her in prison.

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