Martha Stewart offers to work off sentence

White-collar crooks have community service option

July 11, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

In 1,000 hours, a driver could cruise from Washington to Los Angeles and back about a dozen times.

A sports fan could indulge in more than 330 pro-football games on TV.

And Martha Stewart could help atone for running afoul of the law as a volunteer for a New York organization that helps disadvantaged women become entrepreneurs.

Stewart hopes to join the list of celebrities who have worked off their legal troubles in the company of the sick or disadvantaged.

Stewart's attorneys offered a detailed plan for her to serve 1,000 hours, in 20-hour weekly increments, at a center that offers financial advice and loans to low-income women called the Women's Venture Fund.

Stewart told Newsweek magazine she offered to teach classes to women about running a business.

The Women's Venture Fund declined to comment but acknowledged Stewart and officials there had spoken.

Even if that proposal is accepted by federal Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum at Stewart's sentencing Friday, the style guru is still expected to receive some prison time.

A jury convicted her March 5 of attempting to obstruct a federal investigation into insider trading of stock she owned. The judge last week denied Stewart's request for a new trial on grounds that a Secret Service ink expert allegedly lied on the witness stand at her trial.

Stewart's offer of community service is one that legal experts expect to see more of as white-collar criminals from corporate America face justice.

"The CEOs always get religion after they've been caught. They suddenly have time [for community service]," said Scott Harshbarger, a lawyer and former Massachusetts attorney general and former head of Common Cause, the citizens' lobbying group.

Among other high-profile community service sentences, singer Bobby Brown volunteered 240 hours for a 1996 drunken driving conviction. Actress Winona Ryder received 480 hours for a shoplifting conviction in 2001.

President Bush's twin daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush were ordered to perform community service stemming from an underage drinking case in 2001. Jenna Bush's service was 36 hours, while her sister's was eight.

One of the longest community-service sentences - 5,400 hours - was given to Stewart's fellow white collar criminal, Michael R. Milken, the 1980s-era junk bond king who also spent time in prison.

Others from the executive suites sentenced to community service as part of their punishment include investment banker James J. McDermott, who got eight months in prison and 300 hours of community service in 2000 for insider trading, and former Sotheby's chief executive Diana Brooks, who was ordered to do six months of home confinement and 1,000 hours of community service in 2002 for her role in a price-fixing scheme.

Stewart is slated for sentencing for lying, conspiring and obstructing a federal investigation into her sale of ImClone Systems Inc. stock in 2001 just before the price dropped.

Federal sentencing guidelines, and her conviction in one of the most chronicled corporate trials in recent years, virtually ensure that she'll receive some amount of jail time, experts said.

Considering the income of one of the nation's most successful media titans, 1,000 hours of Stewart's time would be worth about $673,000 - or $673 an hour.

That's based on her 2003 salary of $900,000 and bonus of $500,000 for work as chief creative officer at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., the multimillion-dollar conglomerate she founded and ran pre-ImClone. She has since resigned.

At a 9-to-5 pace, 1,000 hours would consume 125 days or 25 weeks.

"I'm not sure how many people Martha Stewart would be able to help with 1,000 hours," opined Franklyn P. Salimbene, director of the Bentley Service-Learning Center at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. "I would look for longer community service than that. She's got a lot to offer in terms of her experience, and she has a lot of repayment to do."

The federal government does not track the percentage of offenders sentenced to community service or the average length of service. Legal experts say it's most common for nonviolent offenders with limited criminal records, but assignment of hours still isn't universal because of the difficulty in monitoring offenders on the job.

"Community service is used at all levels within the criminal justice system, at the state and federal level, for all types of offenses, though they are usually nonviolent offenders and offenders who cannot pay court costs or fines. It's an opportunity to give back," said Andrew Molloy Jr., president of the American Probation & Parole Association and a correctional programs specialist at the National Institute of Corrections in Washington.

The judge in the Stewart case may deem the Women's Venture Fund an appropriate use of Stewart's skills and 1,000 hours an appropriate amount of time - since she offered.

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