A Federal judge Wednesday sentenced Leona Helmsley, convicted of evading $1.7 million in taxes, to four years in prison, starting April 15--the deadline for filing tax returns.
The 71-year-old self-proclaimed hotel queen sobbed and begged U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Griesa for mercy, citing the ill health of her husband, millionaire real estate and hotel magnate Harry Helmsley, 83, whose properties include the Empire State Building.
Later in the day, however, Helmsley herself encountered health problems. She collapsed and was admitted to the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, which contains the Helmsley Medical Tower, donated by the family. Physicians said she was suffering from an irregular heartbeat and severe hypertension.
All in all, it was a bad day for Helmsley, whose lavish spending became a symbol of the excesses of the 1980s.
Before she lost her composure in court, she pleaded to be allowed to care for her ailing husband: "He has nobody in the world that can care and love him the way I do. He has no family at all. All he's got is me."
Unmoved, the judge declared:
"There is a community that needs to be served by the enforcement of the law. . . . It is my judgment the motion for sentence reduction should be denied."
Griesa said that Helmsley's conduct had been "deliberate, fraudulent, directed against the United States government. It involved evasion of taxes."
Helmsley must also pay more than $8 million in taxes, interest and penalties, and perform 750 hours of community service.
In perhaps the most memorable testimony of Helmsley's 1988 trial, her former housekeeper told the jury that her employer had told her: "We don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes."
Griesa postponed the date Helmsley must report to prison while he studied a voluminous motion her lawyers have filed for a new trial. Her chief counsel, Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, has charged misconduct on the part of Helmsley's accountants and federal prosecutors, allegations the government has denied.
Helmsley was convicted of income tax fraud and mail fraud from 1983 to 1985. According to testimony, she used company funds to pay for personal luxuries such as clothing, a $45,000 silver clock shaped like the Helmsley Building in Manhattan, and renovation of the Helmsleys' 28-room mansion in Greenwich, Conn.
Testimony showed that Helmsley's high lifestyle was matched by her hauteur. She fired employees at Christmas, pictured herself in advertisements as queen of luxury hotels, and helped to rule the Helmsley hotel empire with a manicured iron hand.
Sandor Frankel, another of Helmsleys' lawyers, told the court Wednesday that she had suffered two or three strokes since her conviction and suffers from severe coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and blockage of arteries to the brain. He said that her family history showed "extraordinary genetic predisposition to cardiac catastrophe."
Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Hellerer noted, however, that her ailments had not kept Helmsley from appearing on TV talk shows to castigate the government.
Helmsley may go to the Federal Medical Center, a minimum-security prison in Lexington, Ky., where she would have to do housekeeping chores--starting with making her metal-framed bunk.