Helmsley Not Flattered in Courtroom Testimony
The portrait of Leona Helmsley emerging in a Manhattan courtroom bears little resemblance to the smiling queen whose finicky attention to detail is trumpeted in slick magazine ads for her Helmsley Palace hotel.
Sure, both Leonas would demand the best. But the queen would pay for it, and the queen’s English would be a bit more majestic.
“You (expletive), you’re not my partner; you don’t tell me how to spend my money,” Helmsley once said, according to a former underling who was a prosecution witness at her federal trial on extortion and tax fraud charges.
The witness, former Helmsley executive Jeremiah McCarthy, testified that Helmsley screamed at him when he refused to sign a phony voucher that billed work performed at her mansion to the Helmsley business.
Accused in Payoffs
Helmsley and two former employees allegedly engaged in a false-invoice scheme and used company money to pay for $4 million in work on the Helmsleys’ 28-room estate in Greenwich, Conn. She is also accused of taking payoffs from Helmsley suppliers, sometimes in cash-plump envelopes.
Her 80-year-old husband, Harry, was severed from the case because of a loss of memory caused by a series of slight strokes.
Thus far, the jury has heard only the prosecution case. The trial, in its third week, is expected to last two more months, and there is no indication of whether Helmsley will take the stand.
She would have a lot to rebut. Each day, observers have been regaled by stories starring the 69-year-old queen of a $5-billion real estate empire.
Helmsley, never the people’s choice in a town where rents have skyrocketed, has become the people’s pariah. Everette Dennis, head of the Gannett Center for Media Studies, said Helmsley has become a person of “singular unpopularity in New York.”
Impeccably dressed and coiffed, she sits in the courtroom, generally stoical but sometimes laughing, shaking her head or crying, as witness after witness describes her as an overbearing, abusive, capricious employer.
There has been so much negative testimony regarding Helmsley’s personality that U.S. District Court Judge John Walker has called for a moratorium. “I think this case would move much more quickly if we concentrated on the evidence rather than the personality issue,” he said.
But the jury had already gotten an earful:
McCarthy testified that Helmsley once refused to pay a $13,000 bill to a contractor who had built a barbecue pit. McCarthy pleaded the contractor’s case--the man had six kids, he said.
“Why didn’t he keep his pants on? He wouldn’t have so many problems,” Helmsley said, according to the testimony.
Elizabeth Baum, a former housekeeper at the mansion, recalled remarking to Helmsley that the Helmsleys must pay a lot of taxes. She recalled Helmsley’s response: “We don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes.”
Helmsley told Steven Chang, a Helmsley engineer, to duplicate at the estate an underground sound system she had seen at Disney World. Chang said she charged the $57,000 cost to the business, and then fired him because the hidden speakers were not hidden enough and they once went on at 4:30 a.m.
Her lawyer, Gerald A. Feffer, has done little to challenge the unpleasant portrait of his client, except to point out that the Helmsleys did pay $58 million in taxes from 1983 to 1985.
In fact, Feffer has gone out of his way to underscore Helmsley’s churlishness. In his opening statement, Feffer referred to her as a “tough bitch” who was “abrasive” and “demanding” because of the pressures applied to a woman who fought to make it in a man’s world.
“In the United States we don’t put people in jail for being unpopular,” Feffer told the jury.