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SHONA SEIFERT TAKES STAND, DENIES IT ALL

Jury Hears the Most Important Pitch of Her Career: 'I'm Innocent'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Testifying in federal court in her own defense today, former Ogilvy & Mather executive Shona Seifert denied the government's allegations that she led an agency plot to over-bill the national anti-drug ad program in 1999.
Photo: Louis Lanzano
Shona Seifert outside the courtroom at U.S. District Court in lower Manhattan.

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Full Background:
BACKGROUND: THE WHITE HOUSE DRUG OFFICE ADVERTISING CASE
The Stories From 2001 to the Present

Read the 14-page indictment .pdf

Denies everything
In about four hours on the witness stand, Ms. Seifert told jurors that key parts of the case against her, from the testimony of former colleagues to physical evidence presented by the prosecutors, were without base. In particular, she denied taking part in meetings and phone calls in which Ogilvy staffers were ordered to falsify or revise timesheets submitted on the Office of National Drug Control Policy account.

Ms. Seifert, now president of Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, and Thomas Early, former finance director at the New York office of WPP Group's Ogilvy, could face up to five years in prison if convicted of defrauding the government as charged. Both have pleaded not guilty.

When asked by her lawyer whether she is innocent of the charges against her, Ms. Seifert answered in a calm if slightly defiant tone. "I am," she said.

Pitching the jury
At least as important as any of her flat refutations of the government's case was the opportunity it afforded her to directly interact with jurors. Ms. Seifert, known around the industry as having a knack for nailing new business, took full advantage of the chance, injecting what may be her most important pitch yet with enormous energy and character.

As her attorney Gregory Craig walked her through the evidence against her, she looked many of the jurors straight in the eyes offering her version of the facts in a soft English accent. She gave long, detailed answers to Mr. Craig's questions. She proudly pointed out her husband, sitting in the gallery, to the jury. She even made jokes, at one point referring to a former colleague's reference to working on Kimberly-Clark's Huggies brand as "the land of poopy diapers." In short, Ms. Seifert acted like a woman who was simply dying to tell her story.

At one point, her eagerness overstepped the court's bounds. When asked by Mr. Craig whether she had ever given a former staffer timesheets to revise, Ms. Seifert burst out with a long series of denials ending, "It's written somewhere else in a government report who did it and it wasn't me." Judge Richard Berman sustained an objection by the prosecution, thus cutting her off.

Cross-exam clash
The charm she displayed on direct questioning was replaced by a toughness that verged on defensiveness when the prosecution began its cross-examination late in the day. Assistant U.S. attorney Lauren Goldberg tangled Ms. Seifert up in a tense argument over the meaning of the word "put" as it was used in a note affixed to an ONDCP timesheet filled out by Rosalinde Rago, an Ogilvy executive who died last year. The Post-It read: "Put Huggies and Wings time on ONDCP."

The handwriting on that note, which Ms. Seifert acknowledged is hers, is an important piece of evidence for the prosecutors, but Ms. Seifert said the note was a mere suggestion that another employee talk to Ms. Rago about why she wasn't billing time on ONDCP despite the fact she was working on the account. "[Ms. Rago] gave me the distinct impression she was coming off Huggies," Ms. Seifert said.

Cross-examination will continue tomorrow morning. Ms. Seifert's attorneys are also expected to call their own handwriting expert. It's unclear whether Mr. Early will testify, but his attorneys said they will call character witnesses on his behalf. Closing arguments could come as early as tomorrow afternoon.

Star defense witness
So far, Ms. Seifert's testimony has been the centerpiece of the defense's case. Prior to putting the defendant on the stand, Mr. Craig's team had relied on strategy of character and expert witnesses to counter the prosecution's case. As such, hers was the most fact-based defense testimony yet, successful in clouding certain points.

For instance, Ms. Seifert called into question testimony from former Ogilvy media staffer, Maria Pantaleoni, who said Ms. Seifert ordered timesheet revisions at one of the weekly ONDCP status meeting. "There would have been 40 to 50 people at those meetings," Ms. Seifert said. "Of course I didn't do that." She also denied meetings and conversations with Bob Zach and Peter Chrisanthopoulos, former Ogilvy media executives who, having pleaded guilty to fraud charges, testified against Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early during this trial. She and Mr. Craig tried to turn the prosecution's use of her date book against it. Ms. Seifert testified that a series of meetings with Mr. Early, Mr. Zach and Al DiOrio, a contracts coordinator who died last year, had less than sinister agendas.

Less convincing testimony
A less convincing portion of Ms. Seifert's story was an attempt to minimize the impact of a projected revenue shortfall in 1999 that prosecutors said mobilized an effort to pad timesheets. Ms. Seifert testified that when the shortfall on the ONDCP account was realized in the fall of that year, just months after the agency won the business, Ogilvy's New York office had already made its numbers for the whole year. The jury, however, already heard testimony from Bill Gray, president of the office, who said the revenue issue angered him and that he ordered Ms. Seifert and Mr. Early to "get a fix on it."

Through her testimony, Ms. Seifert offered an alternative explanation for why there was so much concern about timesheets in the summer and fall of 1999. She said it had to do less with a revenue shortfall than with a widespread agency problem with lost or missing timesheets she described as "cultural." With ONDCP, a strictly regulated government contract, this posed a particular problem. But when the issue of legally correcting timesheets came up, Ms. Seifert was troubled, she testified.

"I was uncomfortable," she said today. "It doesn't matter what your intention is. The appearance is bad. The appearance looks bad."

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