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September 15, 1998


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Judge irked by defendant's behaviour in Zubin Mehta's suit

Arthur J Pais in New York

Susan McDougal's lawyer is trying his best to project his client -- charged with embezzling $ 150,000 from Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy -- as a victim of passion but the arguments are not pleasing the judge.

Judge Leslie Light got upset on Thursday when McDougal's lawyer Mark Geragos portrayed his client, a close friend of President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, as the unwitting victim of Zubin Mehta's wife who resented her husband's dalliances and out-of-wedlock kids from an Israeli violinist and others.

Mehta also has two kids from his previous marriage which ended in divorce 30 years ago, with his ex-wife marrying his brother, Zarin Mehta. Geragos alleged that Nancy let Susan McDougal use up the money because Nancy did not want Mehta's illegitimate children to get it.

Judge Light stopped the arguments from continuing, saying it was based on gossip.

And then the judge got upset at McDougal's expressions and body language.

The judge said she had shaken her head and rolled her eyes in response to testimony.

"Sit there like a wooden Indian," the judge admonished McDougal. "This is not a theatre. You are not a mime. You cannot say anything verbally or through your body language... You cannot communicate with the jury... Just sit there and listen or write it down."

Earlier, the prosecution argued that McDougal, who along with her ex-husband was a partner in the failed Whitewater real estate business with the Clintons, lusted after Mehta's money. When her own marriage fell apart, the argument ran, and the financial support drained, Susan could not stop her lavish lifestyle, and dissatisfied with the $ 40,000 a year salary she got from the Mehtas as their book-keeper, she forged Nancy's signature to pocket $ 150,000. She worked for the Mehtas between 1989 and 1992.

The Mehtas have homes in New Jersey and California. Nancy Mehta started a real estate business while her husband was mostly abroad conducting symphony orchestras. The business lost a lot of money. Nancy Mehta, who is 50 plus, said she took in Susan McDougal, 43, because she was a friend of the Clintons and came highly recommended. McDougal's lawyer has asserted in the court that Nancy Mehta, upset over her husband's infidelity, grew emotionally fond of Susan, and decided to frame her when Susan McDougal refused to accept Nancy Mehta's overtures.

The high drama in the court continued as a female juror handed Judge Light a note on Friday complaining that McDougal was treating her trial as if it were "a social gathering.'' The note cited McDougal's breezy attitude and chattiness with her boyfriend and brother.

McDougal simply was not "taking these proceedings seriously,'' the juror complained.

Judge Light temporarily stopped the trial to order all jurors from the room as he read the complaint into the record. He said McDougal is court-savvy and may have been trying to manipulate jurors.

Upon their return about a half-hour later, the judge instructed jurors to disregard reactions that people in the room registered toward others.

Judge Light said on Friday that the juror's complaint gave him new insight into her behaviour.

"Whatever she has been doing, she has been doing knowingly,'' he told the court. "McDougal is an intelligent woman who is relatively sophisticated about court proceedings for a non-attorney.''

Judge Light told jurors such reactions should not play a part in how the jurors evaluate testimony.

The embezzlement case is not related to her Whitewater land dealings, which involved Susan McDougal, her husband who died recently, President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton when they lived in Arkansas.

Susan McDougal spent 18 months behind bars rather than testify before the federal grand jury investigating Clinton's involvement in Whitewater.

She also served three and a half months of a two-year sentence for fraudulently obtaining a $ 300,000 Small Business Administration loan in 1986. Her late ex-husband, James, and then governor Jim Guy Tucker of Arkansas were also convicted of financial misdeeds connected to a savings and loan owned by James McDougal.

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