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Judge Rejects Bid for Mistrial in McDougal Case

Trial: He says prosecution had no duty to share grand jury transcripts. Defense lawyer is found in contempt for interrupting jurist.

October 23, 1998|ANN W. O'NEILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rejecting a defense attorney's angry allegations that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had "propped up" Susan McDougal's Los Angeles embezzlement prosecution, a Superior Court judge refused to grant a mistrial and instead found the lawyer in contempt of court.

The controversy brought yet another early end to another contentious day in court, as the Whitewater figure's trial bogged down at the end of its sixth week. No testimony has been heard since Tuesday.

The short delay was called Thursday to allow defense attorney Mark Geragos more time to read and digest more than 1,000 pages of federal grand jury transcripts turned over by prosecutors late Wednesday. The transcripts featured testimony by two key defense witnesses who had been called last year before the grand jury conducting a tax investigation of McDougal.

Geragos says Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeffrey Semow kept to himself the transcripts, which the prosecutor received during the first week of the trial. But Superior Court Judge Leslie W. Light said Thursday that the prosecutor committed no misconduct by withholding the transcripts because they apparently contain no evidence helpful to the defense.

Thursday's hearing was so heated and tempers grew so short that the judge at one point warned Geragos to stop interrupting him. "You do not have the floor," he scolded, as he has frequently during the trial.

When the defense attorney renewed his protest, the judge snapped: "Mr. Geragos, I find you in direct contempt of this court. I'll decide what action to take against you later."

The day began with Geragos, working on only 90 minutes of sleep, demanding a mistrial and saying he couldn't go forward since he had only been able to skim the voluminous transcripts since receiving them at 3 p.m. Wednesday. The transcripts include testimony by two of Geragos' planned witnesses--McDougal's fiance, Eugene "Pat" Harris, and Monique Graham, a former employee of Nancy and Zubin Mehta, the couple McDougal is accused of bilking.

Harris and Graham testified last year before the federal grand jury in Los Angeles that was investigating McDougal's tax status. No indictments were issued.

Geragos, who has long alleged that state and federal prosecutors are working together to pressure his client, characterized the grand jury inquiry as a raid on the defense camp.

Geragos alleged, as he has before, that a prosecutor in Starr's office threatened McDougal with the embezzlement charges and the tax investigation unless she cooperated and testified against Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Whitewater investigation. If she cooperated, he said she was told, the others cases would go away.

She refused, and spent more than a year in jail after being held in contempt of court.

Semow, who adamantly denies working with the independent counsel's office, said he never told the defense about the transcripts because he believed he had no legal obligation to do so. After reading the documents, Light said he found nothing that would significantly alter the heart of the case--the credibility of the prosecution's chief witness, Nancy Mehta.

McDougal is accused of embezzling more than $150,000 from Mehta and her husband while she was their assistant and bookkeeper. She worked for the couple from 1989 to mid-1992, long before the Whitewater scandal broke.

The judge said Whitewater has nothing to do with the embezzlement case, which he noted was filed "even before Whitewater was a twinkle in the special prosecutor's eye." And the judge discounted the idea of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, "a Democrat, assisting a right-wing conspiracy in getting the Democratic president of the United States."

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