CHICAGO—Martha Stewart has mainly herself to blame for all the trouble she's in.
But there's another party that has plenty of explaining to do: the government prosecutors who are making a federal case out of the domestic doyenne's lapses in judgement.
ImClone stock just before disastrous news sent it into the tank. It's equally clear that this case also serves the government's public relations agenda at least as much as any public policy purpose.
The government needed to bag at least one big scalp because too many former titans are still running free.
Enron's Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, unindicted. WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers, unindicted. HealthSouth's Richard Scrushy, unindicted.
As a group, they did so much damage to people's fortunes, they deserve some kind of criminal nickname. The Hole in the Wallet Gang.
Martha Stewart doesn't belong anywhere near that group. Not in terms of the damage she did.
Government prosecutors can prattle on about the integrity of the markets. But Martha's measly trade pales compared to the Enron-WorldCom-HealthSouth, etc. atrocities.
While the Hole in the Wallet Gang wreaked greater havoc, Stewart had something the others did not. She had a name that would make insider trading a household word--and well-decorated households, at that.
It might seem unfair to accuse the government of a publicity play simply for doing its job. After all, Stewart shouldn't be excused just because she is famous.
I noted in a previous column on Stewart's troubles that the government brings cases for puny insider trading crimes all the time. Some as puny as the extra $49,532 Stewart pocketed by trading just before ImClone tumbled on the bad news that the government wouldn't approve its cancer drug.
But consider the government's actions in the Stewart case, and it's clear there's a PR game every bit as intense as the legal undertaking.
Both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are in on the act. Typically, with an infraction as small as Stewart's, only one agency pursues. The better to conserve investigative resources for bigger cases.
Then there was the timing: The government sent its "target letter" on the eve of the shareholders' meeting for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Nice touch.
Prosecutors probably dreamed about the media mob that would encircle Stewart en route to the meeting. She foiled them by not showing up.
Talk the government could be pursuing an obstruction-of-justice charge suggests authorities will try to concoct bulk where it can't find billions in damages. Obstruction is becoming to the post-Enron cases what tax evasion was in the Capone era.
Henry R. Cheeseman, a business law professor at the University of Southern California's business school, says the Stewart case is partly about law, but mostly about hype.
"I kind of look at the SEC as the best public relations firm in the country," Cheeseman says. "They get more bang for the buck than any PR firm does."
This can serve a purpose. "If this scares a couple of thousand other people from doing insider trades, then the public is very much served," he says.
Fair enough. Stewart needs to answer for what she has done.
But it would be a lot easier to cheer the SEC and the Justice Department if Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling had been called to account. If Bernie Ebbers and Richard Scrushy had faced the business end of a court summons.
Insider trading threatens the integrity of the markets. But so do cooked corporate books, shady self-enriching side deals, lying to investors and stonewalling congressional investigators.
Stewart's alleged misdeeds have tarnished a home decorating icon. The Hole in the Wallet Gang helped stall the world's biggest economy.
Bring Stewart to justice. That's a good thing.
But give her some high-profile corporate company. That's even better--and long overdue.