Stewart requests prompt start to prison term

Lifestyle entrepreneur wants to put scandal behind her

5 months in jail, 5 under house arrest

September 16, 2004|By Patricia Hurtado | Patricia Hurtado,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - Speaking in a light-bathed room where her media company holds meetings and photo shoots, Martha Stewart said yesterday that she would voluntarily begin serving her five-month prison term because she wanted to put the "nightmare" of her stock scandal behind her.

"I suppose the best word to use for this very harsh and difficult decision is finality," Stewart, 63, told reporters gathered for a news conference at the Chelsea offices of the company she founded, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. "And my intense desire and need to put this nightmare behind me both personally and professionally. I must reclaim my good life. I must return to my good work ... and allow those around me to do the same.

"The only way to reclaim my good life and the quality of life for all those related to me with certainty now is to serve my sentence, surrender to the authorities, so that I can quickly return as soon as possible to the life and the work that I love.

"I am very sad knowing I will miss the holiday season," Stewart said, ticking off Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas as celebrations she will have to observe behind bars, "and I will miss all of my pets - my two beloved, fun-loving dogs, my seven lively cats, my canaries, my horses and even my chickens. It's odd what becomes of immense importance when one realizes one's freedom is about to be curtailed."

However, she added, "I know I am doing the right thing for me and for my family, my colleagues and my company, and the relief I feel at putting this behind me is great."

One Martha Stewart Living director, Charles A. Koppelman, said Stewart had told him a few days ago of her intentions. When he asked her why, Koppelman said in an interview, "she said, `Well,' and then she counted on her fingers and said, `I could be back in time for planting season.'"

Her appeals lawyer, Walter Dellinger, insisted that Stewart would still challenge her conviction, saying the move to serve was purely a business decision based on the impact the scandal has had on her company.

Stewart's legal team said her decision came after her co-defendant, Peter Bacanovic, obtained an extension from the federal appeals court hearing their case. Dellinger said the delay meant that Stewart's appeal would not be heard until next year, prolonging the uncertainty of her company.

In July, Stewart was sentenced to five months in prison and five months' home detention after being convicted of obstruction, conspiracy and making false statements to investigators stemming from her sale of nearly 4,000 shares of ImClone stock in December 2001.

Taking toll on company

U.S. District Judge Miriam Cedarbaum stayed the sentence, allowing Stewart to remain free while she appealed. Yesterday morning, Dellinger delivered a letter to Cedarbaum asking that Stewart immediately be assigned to a federal prison.

"It has become increasingly clear to Ms. Stewart that the uncertain duration of the appellate process is taking a toll on MSLO," Dellinger wrote. "The company, its employees, investors, and advertisers all need to know with certainty when she will be available to play that role. Thus Ms. Stewart has come to the firm belief that the best interests of MSLO ... require that she begin serving the sentence."

Although Cedarbaum had agreed to recommend that Stewart serve her term at the federal prison camp at Danbury, Conn., near her home in Westport, Dellinger wrote that overcrowding at that minimum-security facility meant there was a moratorium on new inmates being placed there. He asked Cedarbaum to recommend a federal women's prison camp in Coleman, Fla.

Dan Dunne, a Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman noted that both Danbury and Coleman were full and said the assignment process could take a couple of weeks.

Stewart, whose style and good taste have served as decorating guides for her fans, made her announcement while standing before a gigantic display of more than 2,200 color swatches from her Kmart paint collection. The Martha Stewart Omnimedia executives who attended sat on graphite-colored Windsor chairs from her furniture collection and rested their feet on a needlepoint rug of cerulean and cream.

She grew emotional as she talked of missing her two chows Paw Paw and Zu Zu, who have been featured in her magazine, and the heirloom hens whose pastel-colored eggs inspired her paint collection.

Stewart managed to get a laugh from reporters as she described walking past a group of well-dressed businessmen and hearing one say, "Oh! She's out already!"

"I hope that my time goes as fast as that," Stewart said as she left the podium and exited stage right. "I'll see you next year."

She disappeared behind a white scrim that had been drawn across the cavernous loft space.

In unison, the two dozen executives rose and gave her a rousing 20-second standing ovation. They included Heidi DeLuca and James Follo, both of whom testified in Stewart's trial, and her daughter, Alexis.

Stewart returned to her desk to do some work, an adviser said.

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