Punishment to Fit Leona's Crime?

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 20, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — In the wee hours of April 15, when the average mathphobic American taxpayer was still desperately rummaging among little piles of receipts for some last-minute deduction, a car pulled up to a prison gate in Lexington, Ky. Out of it emerged Leona Helmsley, the most famous and scorned tax-evader since Al Capone.

If you think the timing of Mrs. Helmsley's incarceration was an accident -- a mere astrological coincidence -- take a rebate for credulity. Shucks, take two, they're small.

The April 15 date for Leona's appointment in Lexington was designed to send a chill up the pen of any taxpayer who has ever thought about charging lunch with mom as a business expense. It was a pre-emptive strike against any deep, dank, dark suspicion that the very rich do not pay taxes like thee, me and a White House canine author named Millie.

After all, the most famous line attributed to Leona in every story about the hotel magnate's trial and conviction was that ''only the little people pay taxes.'' Now the big lady was in the slammer. Gotcha!

Well, forgive me if I don't join the cheering squad at the prison gate. I am no card-carrying member of the Leona Helmsley Defense Committee. I am grateful that I never worked for her. I thought the ads she ran as the self-styled queen of the Helmsley Hotels were a tacky tribute to one woman's hubris. Even worse than Lee Iacocca's.

But I never thought one woman's come-uppance -- or should I say come-down-ance -- would be a cause of such celebration. It's as if everyone but her lawyers got high on seeing Leona brought low.

''How the mighty are fallen from penthouse luxury to the prison cell,'' said one wire story. ''Leona Helmsley won't find mints on her pillow when she checks into federal prison,'' gloated another.

There were loving reports about the rich lady's new designer wardrobe -- blue top and blue pants or white blouse and black skirt. There were details about her decidedly Spartan accommodations: a room for 32 with a bunk bed, a desk, a locker and chair to call her own. Even the warden helped by suggesting that Leona's hotel experience would qualify her to mop floors.

Come on. Nobody's gotten this sort of treatment since Marie Antoinette lost her crown the hard way. And she wasn't around to see it.

Admittedly, when any wealthy person clashes with the law, somebody thinks the rich and famous get off easier and somebody thinks they have it harder.

Willie Smith's supporters believe he never would have been indicted if his middle name weren't Kennedy. The detractors believe he was acquitted for the same reason.

Mike Tyson fans are sure his money was the real target. The rest are relieved that he got convicted despite it.

In fact, the rich are not treated like the rest of us. They get better lawyers and worse publicity. They rarely end up on death row, getting executed. They often end up on page one, getting trashed. Add Leona to the bin.

There is nothing more popular in a democracy than a story of the rise from rags to riches. Unless it is a story of the fall from riches to prison. And unless it is the story of the fall of an uppity woman to a name and serial number: 15113-054.

Do I think Leona dunnit? Yup. But do I think there is more than a soupcon of sexism in the way the IRS made an example of her, and in the way the public takes joy at her come-down-ance? You betcha.

It is not just gender police who think that the threshold of arrogance is lower for women. Or who think that one gender's ''tough bitch'' is another gender's strong, demanding leader. Women are judged more on relationships, and Leona flunked that course in personnel management.

''My one crime,'' she said, ''was being Leona Helmsley.'' Well, not quite. But in the end it was the crime that counted the most in the public arena. It got her the most hate, the least mercy.

Leona Helmsley tried to get away with $1.7 million. She paid it back, in dollars and in spades. She is 71 years old. She lost her only child a while back. Her husband and partner was protected from prosecution because he is ill. She has hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and a four-year sentence in the can.

L So how about a little charity? Why not? It's tax deductible.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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