The headline on the AP story following up on Martha Stewart’s felony conviction on charges of conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction of justice, said it all: “Conviction Clouds Martha Stewart’s Future.” At first I thought maybe they were referring to her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., which might have been okay. But the story made it clear the writer, Erin McClam, was referring to the convict, not her namesake company.
The company’s shares were plummeting, and Viacom cancelled her syndicated TV show, McClam wrote, “but the big question that remained was the future of the domestic diva’s bread-and-butter job as a leader within the company that bears her name.”
There’s American justice and American business journalism for you. Imagine a story about some car thief in Philadelphia, just sent up the river for stealing five Camry sedans, getting a headline like that: “Conviction Clouds Jones’ Future.”
Forget the fact that Stewart, for her efforts in deceiving regulators and other investors, lying to iinvestigators and destroying the evidence of her nefarious behavior, is reportedly facing 16 months of jail, tops (and probably will spend most of that time out on appeal, and, if she loses, the rest of it at some minimum security prison farm), while the mythical Jones and hundreds of thousands of real people much like him do years of hard time for their much more prosaic offenses.
The real point of difference between the two is that while there are actually questions being raised about just how cloudy Martha’s future will be, i.e. will she have to resign from the board of Martha Stewart, will K-Mart continue to carry her line, no one would harbor such thoughts concerning Jones’ fate. His future will be cloudy. We know it will be downright stormy. After doing his hard time, he will be a convicted felon. No citizenship rights like voting or serving on a jury for him. Pretty tough time getting a job, too. If he has a family, there’s a stong likelihood it will be history when he gets out, having had to figure out a way to survive without his support. If his particular offense involved drugs in any way, he can kiss any thought of getting an education goodbye–a bunch of craven politicians in D.C. have made it illegal for him to get a college loan.
Martha, when she gets out, might even be invited back by Martha Stewart Living. After all, she’ll have “paid her dues.” It’s certainly likely that she’ll be able to go back to parties at the Hamptons. Businesspeople who’ve done time are on the A-list on the party circuit. She might even be able to get her homemaking advice column back at the New York Times (which in a fit of high moral dudgeon took her name off it following her conviction, and announced that it would be henceforth written by someone of purer moral standing).
Our Mr. Jones, for his part, will probably find that his social circle is a bit more cramped after his release, though. If his record does the job it’s supposed to, tagging him like a leper’s spot and preventing him from finding a decent job, he may end up back hotwiring cars again, and hanging with those who are still on the outside from the old gang. He really won’t have much choice about it.
No, when you think about it, we shouldn’t really cry for Martha. There may be a few clouds in her once tidy life, but they will probably lift before long.
Her real problem was not that she did a little insider trading to avoid a loss. It’s that she wasn’t running a really big company, with links to powerful interests or to National Defense. Judging by the way cases against executives at Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, etc., are going, it would appear that the bigger your crime, the less likely the government is to come after you, and the less likely it is to lock you up if you do get convicted. Heck, Enron’s CFO Andrew Fastow, after his conviction for fraud, was actually allowed by the court to go home for months until his wife, who also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five months in the can, gets back out, before he’d have to go to jail. There were the kids to think of, and so he wanted his wife back out before he went in, so they wouldn’t be “without a parent” (how many low-class convicts get that kind of consideration from a court?)
And then of course, there are the real corporate criminals–the guys at companies like Haliburton or General Electric or Boeing, who have stiffed the government and the taxpayer for hundreds of millions, maybe billions, over the years, who never even get prosecuted. Most such firms, like Waste Management, another powerful player, get to pay fines without even admitting to a crime when they commit fraud.
DAVE LINDORFF, currently on a Fulbright Senior Scholar residency in Taiwan, is working on “This Can’t Be Happening,” a collection of CounterPunch columns and other musings for Common Courage Press.