Some offenses are just unpardonable

November 27, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

In the spirit of the holiday season, and his last one in the White House, President George W. Bush has pardoned two turkeys and 14 felons.

And yet, Martha Stewart remains unforgiven.

Now, those who have tried to do a Martha-style holiday - I confess, I created a "mosaic" of herbs under the turkey's skin one year - probably think she should never be forgiven. But I'm talking about her crimes against the stock market, not the sanity of the average homemaker.

Stewart, as you might recall, was convicted in 2004 of lying to prosecutors investigating the suspicious timing of a stock sale. In what became a veritable festival of schadenfreude, she was ripped from the elegant lifestyle that she purveyed to us, and no doubt enjoyed herself, and was exiled to West Virginia - West Virginia! - to serve five months in a federal prison. She also had to relinquish her title of CEO of the corporation she founded and named after herself, and ultimately paid a nearly $200,000 fine to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission case.

Stewart apparently is not among the high-profile convicts who have pending applications for a presidential pardon, although her name has been floated by those speculating over who might be considered. Maybe it's just not in the imperious Martha's style to beg for forgiveness the way everyone from junk-bonder Michael Milken to disgraced congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham have.

But as Bush has pardoned or commuted the sentences of less-celebrated felons - including several drug dealers, a tax embezzler and someone who poisoned three bald eagles - I'm thinking Martha should get a little of this presidential love herself.

Not that it would make much of a difference in her daily life. She's already served her prison time, and she seems largely unfettered by her felonious past. She's still everywhere, on TV and the radio, in her magazines, and in stores from Kmart to Macy's.

Still, it would be a nice gesture to pardon Martha, an acknowledgment that on the scale of CEO naughtiness, hers was what Catholics might call a venial rather than a mortal sin.

Her celebrity always made her part in the crime loom larger than the acts of those more seriously involved. Stewart sold about 4,000 shares of her stock in a company, ImClone, right before the drug was denied FDA approval and its price was sent plummeting. She wasn't charged with insider trading - all she knew was that the founder of the company and his family were dumping their shares, so she ordered hers sold as well - but rather for lying to prosecutors about why she sold the stock.

Not an admirable thing, of course - and you've got to be pretty stupid or pretty arrogant to think the feds are going to let you get away with lying to them. But her actions pale in comparison to what the other execs that she tends to get lumped with were doing around the same time.

For one thing, Stewart's crime involved only her own money, not that of the shareholders and investors of her company. Unlike Enron and WorldCom, Stewart's company never went bankrupt as a result of her dealings.

And for another, it's hard to get around the whole uppity-woman thing that pervaded the get-Martha spectacle. While the glee never quite rose to Leona Helmsley levels - of course, not much could rise to the Queen of Mean stratosphere - there still seemed to be a bit of the modern-day Salem witch trial to it all.

We all know what witch rhymes with, and the fact that Stewart undoubtedly had that reputation made her a less-than-sympathetic victim as the drama played out. But, as Tina Fey memorably declared about that other lightning rod, Hillary Clinton, rhymes-with-witches "get stuff done."

Stewart probably isn't losing any sleep over any possible pardon. In fact, she never has seemed particularly repentant about her crime - so maybe she doesn't even want one. And actually, it's kind of refreshing to see that she didn't emerge from the whole experience with one of those faux chastened, I'm-reborn transformations. Blech! Who wants to see Martha Stewart feeding the poor or cuddling orphans when she could be gilding pumpkins and, I kid you not, making slipcovers for her candles?

Yes, we turn to Martha not for goodness, but for the good life, or at least her unapologetic, obsessively handicrafted version of it - the manicured gardens, the stylish decor, the luscious food, the kind of perfect parties where the pie always sets, the guests are always well-behaved and, most of all, the hostess is never harried.

But then, the fact that her books and magazines and TV shows make this all seem possible for those of us without the time, money or staff of Martha Stewart is probably a bigger lie than the one she told to those prosecutors.

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