For somebody who has never physically hurt a fly, Susan McDougal has been locked up in some pretty mean places. She did a stretch in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, on the same cellblock with members of Charles Manson's creepy clan. She did time in the Twin Towers correctional facility in downtown L.A., a bad-ass joint where not every inmate leaves on his or her own two feet.
McDougal knows how it feels to be a common criminal. When she was whisked off to jail two Septembers ago, it was in handcuffs and leg irons--for contempt of court. A white-collar crook, she was dragged away like Hannibal Lecter.
It can't be easy keeping a stiff upper lip when you find yourself in a 5-by-9 room, wondering how one minute you're on a hi-Bill basis with the future president of the United States, who affectionately calls you "Kid," and the next minute you're entertaining a couple of accused murderers in stir by bringing them a bottle of baby shampoo and taking turns blowing bubbles through a straw.
No matter where she ends up, McDougal, 43, is not a common criminal. She is an uncommon one. She's the one who went up the Whitewater river, the one who outlived her crooked ex-husband, who paid the price for his schemes and who, in defiance of Kenneth Starr's insistence that she drop a dime on President Clinton, went back to jail maintaining, "I am fulfilled every day that I know he [Starr] is frustrated."
For most of the 1990s and much of the decade before that, McDougal has found herself--possibly put herself--between a rock and a hard place.
Tuesday morning, she was still there.
Zubin Mehta never conducted the L.A. Philharmonic the way he conducted his personal finances. Good thing, or else the entire orchestra might have gone flat.
According to a prosecuting attorney who Tuesday in a Santa Monica court began making a case against McDougal on a dozen counts of embezzlement, forgery and tax fraud, Mehta and his wife, the erstwhile actress Nancy Kovack, often let money matters "go in one ear and out the other," in a way Mozart or Tchaikovsky's music never would.
With an income "most of us would envy," as deputy district attorney Jeffrey Semow put it, Mehta had virtually no interest in the management of his finances.
"His wife . . . is a bit better," Semow allowed.
A bit better, he said in the next breath, nonetheless made Nancy Mehta "essentially clueless about business."
She and her husband owned a number of Westside homes, investments they used as rental properties. They needed someone to keep an eye on them.
Therefore, despite having a personal bookkeeper, an attorney and even a young cousin who was entrusted to look at their books, the Mehtas in 1988 put their properties in the hands of McDougal's boyfriend, Pat Harris. Why? Because he answered a want ad.
A few months later, when Harris had to go away to law school, he suggested McDougal, to whom Nancy Mehta apparently took an instant shine.
McDougal had split with her husband, Jim, after their $2 million reported net worth had disintegrated into total bankruptcy--"credit cards gone, house gone, car gone, everything gone," Semow itemized.
James B. McDougal lost everything after a failed run for the Arkansas Legislature, launching a savings and loan that went belly-up. His investors, among them Bill and Hillary Clinton, are still trying to extract themselves from the McDougal bog. Susan, who married Jim when she was 20, was later convicted with her husband on misappropriation of funds and other charges.
At that trial, Jim cracked jokes, often making Susan laugh in front of judge and jury.
Arriving at court Tuesday, she kneels by her brother, Bill Henley, and recalls Jim's having behaved "like a stand-up comic." She knows now this is no way to beat a rap.
For all her problems, Susan McDougal still has an ebullience about her, good-morning everybody she sees, complimenting a court clerk on the sunflowers of her dress.
She comes to the courthouse in her own clothing, no jail issue, no shackles or cuffs.
"Well," she says, "it's been five years of my name being dragged through the mud. I finally get to fight back and I'm ready for that."
If found guilty, McDougal could do seven more years behind bars. So far she has endured, but that could really burst her bubble.
Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.