Martha Stewart II: The Umpire Strikes Back

26 May 2006

Having painstakingly recrafted her image in the wake of her jail term a year ago, Martha Stewart must again face accusations of insider trading that led to her incarceration for lying to federal investigators.

With the resumption of the Securities and Exchange Commission's three-year-old civil case against her, the hydra of insider trading has again reared its ugly heads to menace America's style queen.

The stakes on this occasion are certainly not as high as those Stewart faced in 2004 when she was sentenced to six months in prison followed by a similar term of house arrest. Nonetheless, she faces a dilemma.

She is eager not only to clear her name but also to regain her dual roles as chairman and chief executive of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the commercial empire she founded and nurtured.

But an unfavourable outcome to the current civil action would prevent her resuming those roles and could also impact adversely on the recovering fortunes of her business.

Stewart must now make a difficult decision. She must respond to charges that she illegally used nonpublic information when selling 4,000 ImClone Systems shares in late 2001.

Should she contest the SEC's accusations in what could be a long and gruelling trial in the hope of restoring her good name and company fortunes?

Or does she negotiate a swift settlement that effectively concedes guilt but leaves her free to focus on rebuilding her business? In which case the implications of guilt would compel her to do so indirectly as editorial director rather than chairman/ceo.

But whatever Stewart's present travails, they are as nothing alongside those of Peter Bacanovic, her co-defendant and former broker at Merrill Lynch.

Bacanovich has been unemployed for four years and faces massive legal bills; Merrill Lynch says it will cease to pay future legal expenses and will not pay whatever fine the SEC imposes.

The maximum amount is $200,000, or approximately three times the gains that Stewart made when she sold her shares.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff