The story of Susan McDougal and Eugene "Pat" Harris is pouring forth from the witness stand of a Santa Monica courtroom, sounding for all the world like a country song for a jaded, post-feminist era.
He wooed her, he won her, and now, even as the long arm of the law tries to reach between them, he's standing by her.
McDougal is on trial, accused of embezzling more than $150,000 from conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy, during the three years she worked for them. Harris testified this week as a character witness for the defense, vouching for McDougal's integrity.
No, he told a prosecutor during cross-examination, her federal mail fraud conviction in the Whitewater case didn't make him think less of her. It made him proud. No, she did not pad her resume; on the contrary, she "dumbed it down." And, no, it never occurred to him that she might be less smitten with him than he is with her.
McDougal could take the stand in her own defense as early as today. Harris, her fiance, has paved the way, telling the jury how they met, fell in love, and how Susan, as the defense maintains, eventually fell under the sway of Nancy Mehta, described as a wealthy, controlling woman who became obsessed with her.
When McDougal and Harris first met in Arkansas 16 years ago, McDougal was married to James B. McDougal, the boss at the former Madison Guarantee Savings & Loan. As the marriage hit the rocks, the steady, baby-faced real estate salesman was there to rescue her.
By 1987, McDougal and Harris were a couple. A year later, they came to California to make a fresh start.
And that was how first he, and then she, came to work for Nancy Mehta. What Susan McDougal did with the books and credit cards while under Mehta's employment lies at the center of this drama.
Lavishing Her With Praise
The trial has provided Harris, now balding and bespectacled at 40, yet another opportunity to ride to McDougal's rescue. In his testimony, he not only emphasized McDougal's good traits, he told the story of the friendship between Mehta and McDougal that began innocently, with two women growing close, "like sisters," and ended in acrimony.
Harris gushed about McDougal's loyalty. It kept her working as Mehta's bookkeeper longer than she should have, Harris said, because she feared that Mehta, who was having marital problems, would commit suicide if she left.
"You have to know Susan," he told jurors. "She's got an incredible sense of loyalty."
Few could argue the point. After all, McDougal chose to spend more than a year in jail rather than tell a grand jury about her Whitewater land deal business partners, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Harris is no slouch in the loyalty department, either. His relationship with McDougal has been tested by years of adversity, with no end in sight. Another trial, stemming from a possible obstruction of justice in the Whitewater probe, and perhaps more jail time are in her future.
Still, Harris is standing by his woman.
He has taken his seat each day directly behind McDougal, fetching documents and lending support. He has endured the sting of Mehta's testimony that McDougal had at times wavered about marrying him.
Their engagement, six years and counting, is longer than some marriages. And yet, at the trial McDougal and Harris act like love-birds. They stroll hand-in-hand out the front door of the courthouse, often stopping on the steps to embrace.
For the past several days, Harris has tried in his testimony to counter the prosecution's portrayal of McDougal as a high-living con artist who charmed the Mehtas, then fleeced them.
It began when Harris was hired by Mehta to run her five Westside properties. Since Harris had law school plans, he gave only a one-year commitment. He started work in July 1988.
From the beginning, he said, there were problems. Mehta was detail-oriented and very involved in the daily business affairs, but her finances were disorganized, he said. Once, he said, she offered a $5,000 raise and a year's pay in advance, then backed out on the promise a few days later.
A year after Harris went to work for the Mehtas, McDougal took over for him. He quit to go to law school, but changed his plans when he didn't get into the school he wanted. He worked for a while in the San Fernando Valley where, he says, Nancy Mehta set the couple up in a house in Encino, lending them the deposit money. That $6,000 is among the funds McDougal is alleged to have stolen, even though she says she paid it back--with interest.
Mehta, meanwhile, said on the witness stand that she never loaned money to her staff, even though other testimony indicates she gave the butler a loan to help him pay off his credit cards.
When Harris entered law school at the University of Michigan in August 1990, the couple decided that McDougal should stay behind for the first year since he would be preoccupied with his studies.
Mehta, whose husband had asked for a divorce the year McDougal started working for her, "kinda clung on to Susan," Harris said.