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Martha's Lesson:

Never Talk to the FBI

by DONALD KAUL

Here is the lesson to be learned from the fall of Martha Stewart:

Don’t ever, under any circumstances, answer questions put to you by the FBI or any other federal agent unless you have a competent criminal lawyer at your side. And it would be better if it were a very good criminal lawyer. There are other lessons to be drawn from the fate of poor Martha, but that’s the main one. You see, there is a section in the federal code, referred to as 1001 by legal eagles, that makes it a crime to lie to a federal agent. The agent doesn’t have to put you under oath. If you tell him or her a lie, you’re guilty. The federal officer doesn’t even have to tape the conversation. All he or she has to do is produce handwritten notes that indicate that you made false statements. So, if you misspeak or the agent mishears or there is an ambiguity that the agent chooses to interpret in an unfortunate (for you) direction, you’re on the hook. There’s also the possibility that you might be tempted to shade the truth a bit when an IRS agent is quizzing you about that business deduction you took for the trip to Vegas. My advice to you is: Don’t do it. To be on the safe side, when confronted by a federal agent, don’t say anything at all unless your lawyer says you have to.

It’s a shame things have come to this. It used to be that people felt it their duty as citizens to cooperate with federal authorities. That was before Law 1001.

We now live in an era of Incredible Shrinking Civil Rights. You have to protect yourself at all times.

Let’s look more closely at the case of Poor Martha the Match Girl. What did she do?

She was convicted of lying about the reason she sold her shares in a biotechnology company two years ago. She said she sold them because they had fallen to the price at which she and her broker had agreed to sell.

The government argued (and the jury believed) that she sold because her broker passed on some inside information that the stock was going to plunge in the next couple of days.

I know what you’re going to say–"insider trading." True, it has that smell about it, but the government did not charge her with insider trading, only with lying about it.

I hate that. It seems to me that convicting someone of lying about a crime that the government isn’t willing to prove happened is unfair.

Add to that the fact that Ms. Stewart saved all of $45,000 on the stock transaction and has seen her fortune decrease by hundreds of millions because of the trial, and the penalty does not seem to fit the crime.

I think the reason the government has spent millions pursuing this two-bit case is because Ms. Stewart is famous and the case makes it look as though the Justice Department is doing a bang-up job running down crooks in high places. Also, the lifestyle lady–a political contributor to Democrats rather than Republicans, incidentally–irritated prosecutors with her haughty, arrogant attitude. (It’s always a bad idea to make prosecutors mad.)

Then too, her high-priced attorney, Robert Morvillo, lost a series of strategic gambles that left his client virtually defenseless. After the government had spent six weeks making the case against Stewart, Morvillo called only one witness in her defense and questioned him for 20 minutes.

His chief argument was that Stewart and her broker were too smart to pull a dumb stunt like this. As one juror said later, "How could we tell anything about how smart either of them was if they never took the stand?"

Ultimately, I suppose, Ms. Stewart’s downfall was precipitated by petty greed, arrogance and deceitfulness, not attractive attributes.

But I still feel sorry for her. She’s getting worse than she deserves.

DONALD KAUL recently retired as Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register.