That taboo topic, Whitewater, continued to lurk on the outskirts of Susan McDougal’s embezzlement trial, even as the case finally went to the jury Wednesday.
Without mentioning the “W word,” Superior Court Judge Leslie W. Light instructed jurors that they were not to consider whether ulterior motives or outside influences shaped the prosecution’s pursuit of the charges against McDougal.
McDougal was accused of embezzling from famed conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy, long before her noncooperation with Whitewater investigators landed her in jail and made her a household name, the judge said during a morning hearing outside the jury’s presence.
Light said he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr “and his minions” had indeed offered to persuade Los Angeles prosecutors to drop the embezzlement case in return for her cooperation with investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, her former partners in the failed, 20-year-old land development deal. But, the judge added, “that has nothing to do” with the issue of whether or not McDougal stole some $50,000 from another couple--the Mehtas--while working for them between 1989 and 1992.
The nine women and three men on the jury retired at 2:30 p.m. and chose a 28-year-old actor to lead them in deliberating the nine theft, forgery and tax-evasion charges.
In their hands were more than 225 exhibits and thousands of pages of documents relating to the Mehtas’ household finances--everything from $4 food bills to an $8,400 personal computer. The contentious trial, which began after Labor Day, lasted three times longer than expected, stretching over nearly 50 court days.
The jurors began deliberations after Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Semow labeled McDougal a con artist and urged jurors not to be taken in by her.
“She’s glib, she’s charming, she sounds good,” he said. But if you listen to what she’s saying, half the time it doesn’t make sense.”
On the other hand, he later added, “If you believe the defense, then she’s innocent. Go home.”
Semow accused McDougal of “showing incredible willfulness” and trying to dominate the courtroom, adding that it was the defendant, and not Nancy Mehta, who controlled their relationship. Mehta was not the “Leona Helmsley” that McDougal portrayed her to be, Semow argued. “She was a shrinking violet compared to this woman,” he added, turning toward McDougal.
Had Mehta been the “controlling, domineering lunatic monster” McDougal described, he added, Zubin Mehta wouldn’t have stayed in the marriage for 29 years.
“Zubin Mehta is the kind of guy, believe me, who would have been out of there long ago,” he said. The prosecutor then seized the opportunity to take a parting shot at McDougal and her longtime fiance, Pat Harris, who testified for her defense.
“Eugene Patterson Harris and Susan McDougal still aren’t married. What does that tell you about who these people really are and what their relationships really are?”
But even as the prosecutor defended Nancy Mehta’s character, he has distanced himself from her flawed memory and business sense.
“Nancy Mehta may be 100 percent honest, but she’s weak in the area of recollection,” he told the jury, acknowledging that she probably did loan McDougal $6,000, forgot about it and then accused McDougal of stealing the money.
Mehta’s lack of business acumen, he added, made her a perfect mark for McDougal, who won her trust and then fleeced her.
The defense has said that Mehta and McDougal once were friends, and that Mehta pursued the charges after a falling-out. Mehta’s free-spending ways provided plenty of fodder for the defense.
In his arguments, defense attorney Mark Geragos reminded jurors of a few of Mehta’s more outlandish expenditures--buying four plane seats to fly bakers and a wedding cake to San Francisco--including a seat for the cake; flying a plumber, his assistant and his wife to Italy to install sprinklers at the Mehtas’ Italian villa; and shipping a mattress from a hotel in Switzerland to the villa in Italy.
“You may think this is funny,” Geragos said, “but it shows what she will do when she wants something done her way. She will spare no expense.”