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Mehta Says McDougal's Spending Shocked Wife

Trial: Conductor, showing jet lag after flight from Germany, testifies that Nancy Mehta didn't know defendant had her credit card.

November 11, 1998|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Conductor Zubin Mehta, who revitalized the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his 16 years as its music director, gave a lively but less than virtuoso performance Tuesday as the final witness in the embezzlement trial of a former employee, Whitewater figure Susan McDougal.

Appearing jet-lagged after a 13-hour flight from Munich, Germany, Mehta testified for just under two hours, saying that his wife, Nancy, was shocked to learn that McDougal, whom she "implicitly" trusted, had charged a credit card up to the limit.

Mehta testified that his wife didn't even know McDougal had the card.

Despite his visible exhaustion, Mehta exerted a commanding presence as he struggled with the lawyers and Superior Court Judge Leslie W. Light for control of the courtroom.

Wearing a navy blue blazer and tailored shirt with French cuffs, Mehta stated his profession as "musician" as he took the stand. He joked under questioning by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Semow, but portrayed himself as rarely at home and clueless about household expenses during the time McDougal worked for the couple in Los Angeles.

His wife of 29 years, Mehta said, always handled the household expenses. But he took pains to underscore her lack of sophistication in financial affairs.

"The checks come home. She puts them in the bank, and we both spend it," he said, describing their routine. He told the jury his wife does not know how to operate a fax machine or personal computer.

His testimony was intended as an antidote to McDougal's claim that Nancy Mehta was intensely involved in monitoring family finances on a computer.

He also defended her against McDougal's portrayal of her as a compulsive shopper.

"Nancy practically doesn't shop, except when she's in New York," he said.

Charming under the prosecutor's questions, the maestro bristled under cross-examination.

At one point, frustrated by defense attorney Mark Geragos' inquiries about his family's spending habits, the 62-year-old conductor exploded: "I don't want to hear this as a vice, what we do with our money. That doesn't mean she has to steal from us. I'm getting upset now."

Mehta's testimony provided a grand finale to the nine-week trial of McDougal, who is accused of embezzling more than $150,000 from the couple between 1989 and 1992.

If prosecutors had hoped that Mehta, a handsome, charismatic man, would dazzle the jury and deflect some of the star power McDougal has cultivated, they may only have partly succeeded, said one legal expert who observed his testimony.

"It wasn't what he said but how he said it. He's charming," said Laurie Levenson, an associate dean at Loyola Law School. "The real question is, was it too little, too late?"

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