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Spending of Nancy Mehta Described

Trial: Testimony in Susan McDougal's embezzlement case tells of a woman who lived lavishly and had little control of her money.

October 06, 1998|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nancy Mehta didn't bat an eye at flying a favorite plumber from Los Angeles to Europe to fix leaks at her Italian villa. Or at picking up the tab, said to be $100,000 complete with gazebo and koi ponds, for a cousin's wedding.

And, when her husband, famed conductor Zubin Mehta, told her he wanted a divorce, she immediately dispatched an intermediary to New York, paying $1,800 for a first-class seat, so, she said, the man could "talk to Zubin and listen to him" on her behalf. It paid off: The couple reconciled.

Described by other witnesses as generous to a fault, Nancy Mehta brought her dog-walker's 12-year-old niece, Darla Motley, into her home to raise as her own. It was an upbringing that included expensive boarding schools and summer camps and even a personal shopper to help pick out shoes.

So, it wasn't at all out of character that when Susan McDougal came to work for her, Mehta treated her to a fancy lunch and bought her classy business clothes.

Yet despite her vast wealth, or perhaps because of it, the picture of Mehta that emerges from her seven days on the witness stand is that of a woman who befriended the help and had no idea--much less, control--of what was happening with her money.

The prosecutor, Jeffrey Semow, says that made Mehta a perfect mark for McDougal's alleged pilfering. But defense attorney Mark Geragos contends that Mehta made McDougal a scapegoat for her own financial mismanagement after the two women, who were for a time close friends, had a falling-out.

McDougal's Fiance Worked for Mehtas

McDougal, a former business partner of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton who became famous because of her refusal to cooperate with Whitewater investigators, is on trial in Santa Monica for embezzlement. She stands accused of forging Mehta's name on a credit card application, racking up about $90,000 in unauthorized charges on that card, and of forging checks for $60,000 more in personal expenses.

The embezzlement case has nothing to do with Whitewater, the 20-year-old land deal that launched the independent counsel's probe of President Clinton. Whitewater resulted in a two-year sentence for a wire fraud conviction against McDougal, who also was jailed for 18 months for refusing to talk to a grand jury about her business dealings with the Clintons.

The court proceedings in Santa Monica have focused instead on McDougal's life with the Mehtas. She was introduced to them while standing in line at a Westwood movie theater with her fiance, Eugene "Pat" Harris, who worked for the couple.

Her marriage to James McDougal was over, and the couple's Arkansas real estate and banking dealings in ruins when she accompanied Harris to California in 1988 to start over. The Mehtas found Harris through an employment agency. McDougal, meanwhile, entered the celebrity food chain as an assistant to Armand Hammer's grandson at Occidental Petroleum.

When Harris headed off to law school, his fiance took his place as an assistant at Nancy Mehta's property management company. Mehta was impressed that she had worked at Occidental and for someone of Hammer's stature.

"Oh, I was sure she could work for me because I felt, being able to work at this level with this company, she was very competent," Mehta testified.

She handled household expenses and her own business, she said, adding that Zubin Mehta was far too busy, and was abroad most of the time. "Mr. Mehta doesn't have a minute in his day to think about anything but his work," she told the jury.

Before she married Zubin Mehta about 29 years ago, Nancy Kovack was an actress. She appeared on the television sitcom "Bewitched," where she played Darrin Stephens' former girlfriend.

By the time she hired McDougal, Mehta was trying her hand at the real estate business. From a potting shed behind the couple's Brentwood mansion, she ran a property management company called Ambience that dealt with the couple's five Westside investment properties. Among her former tenants, according to published reports, was actor Tom Hanks and his family.

Paid for Cousin's Education, Wedding

She was social, appearing regularly at fashion shows and other charity fund-raisers, where she sat cheek-to-jowl with members of Hollywood's social elite--Betsy Bloomingdale and the Frank Sinatras, the Kirk Douglases and the Gregory Pecks.

The Mehtas' households were run by dozens of employees who came and went. A houseman prepared steaks for Tarras, Nancy Mehta's pet borzoi, and picked up food for Mehta and her assistants from fancy Westside restaurants.

Zubin Mehta has four children, none of them with Nancy, according to testimony. Defense attorney Geragos contends that Nancy Mehta told McDougal to spend money and empty out the couple's accounts each month in a scheme to keep it away from her husband's children.

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