Ogilvy case: Defendants get say; trial nears climax

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As they mount their case this week, defense attorneys for Shona Seifert and Thomas Early will likely do little to challenge the existence of a large-scale plot within Ogilvy & Mather's media department to overbill the White House's anti-drug ad program in 1999.

Instead, the bulk of the testimony on behalf of the two former Ogilvy executives now accused of defrauding the government will focus on their character and on the ad industry's lax billing practices.

That approach will be short on direct challenges to the facts of the prosecution's case and long on expert testimony about agencies' failings in handling complicated contracts as well as on personal testimonies to the integrity of the accused. As such, it will be in stark contrast to the precise document-intensive case laid out by the federal prosecutors, who in the course of their seven-day argument produced a cascade of time sheets, vouchers, contract excerpts, e-mail, memo and planner entries. As they walked jurors through the paper trail, the government lawyers even burrowed into Ogilvy's electronic timekeeping system-a massive spreadsheet record of every time sheet filed by every agency employee.

The government auditors responsible for the contract have already emerged as a villain in the defense's version of things. In the opening day of Ms. Seifert's case Feb. 10, a defense witness tarred the government whistleblower who called attention to Ogilvy's billing practices back in 2000. Alan Levitt, former media director for the ONDCP, pointed fingers at fellow bureaucrat Richard Pleffner, whom he said was too strict in his administration of Ogilvy's $150 million a year contract with the White House anti-drug office. "I had some reservations about the allegations," said Mr. Levitt.

The defense has already tried to use the government's insistence on rigor against the prosecution, suggesting that Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early's ignorance of the time-sheet issues on ONDCP were evidence against their taking part in the conspiracy. During direct examination, Mr. Levitt read an e-mail written by Mr. Pleffner that stated a "lack of knowledge by Ogilvy staff, namely upper management, of the billing process." The e-mail continued, "As for Shona Seifert and Tom Early, their comments and reactions seemed to indicate they never looked at the billing issues."

That testimony came one day after prosecutors displayed some of their strongest pieces of proof: defendants' date-book entries indicating a series of meetings about ONDCP financial issues and handwriting analysis linking Ms. Seifert's hand with notations on revised time sheets.

Probably fulfilling some of the jurors' "Law and Order" fantasies, a raspy-voiced FBI expert detailed aspects of Ms. Seifert's penmanship in a time-sheet note that said, "Put Huggies and Wings time on ONDCP." One of Ms. Seifert's date-book entries, for Dec. 21, 1999, read: "See Tom Early re financial issues f- up." Both sets of evidence were blown up on an easel propped smack in front of the jury box.

The planner entries in particular were effective in yoking together Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early, who despite occupying the same defense table rarely, if at all, look at or talk to each other. Indeed, the prosecutors had at times flagged in linking the two with each other or with the broader overbilling plot.

Much of the evidence consists less of direct orders than of innuendo-laden office speak that had Ogilvy employees being asked to "re-evaluate" already-submitted times sheets.

There was, however, some testimony last week suggesting blunt directives. One witness against Ms. Seifert recalled a hallway meeting in which she made her desires plain. "She said the media department is going to get targets for ONDCP and it's important for me and everybody else to use them," said Peter Chrisanthopoulos, a former Ogilvy staffer who had pleaded guilty to inflating time sheets.%

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