Tripped Up by the ’1001′: Statute Spelled Martha’s Doom

Hating, resenting, reviling Martha Stewart was always a guaranteed ice breaker. Bring up her name in a group, share your loathing and make some new friends. Maybe even get a hot stock tip.

I’ve always been rather stunned by the venom this woman provoked in otherwise mild-mannered people-men and women who, often enough, knew more than a little about thread counts and picking wall-paint colors.

Martha’s brand of gracious living was an obvious fake, impossible to realize, as all ideals are unreachable. For some mystifying reason, though, the pretense enraged a lot of people. Do we despise Michelangelo for creating a figure of the human male that no heterosexual middle-aged husband can match?

She lied. And we Americans are an honest lot. Just ask a certain breezy, arrogant ex-President.

Like the rest of us, Martha told white lies all the time-”Ummm, delicious!” She built an empire on it, but she’s not going to jail for weaving the benign fiction about the possibility of gracious living that made certain people feel rage at what they couldn’t have-when even Martha didn’t really have it herself.

No, Martha told the kind of lie that counts as punishable in this country: She lied to the feds.

She was brought down on something known in legal lingo as “1001,” for statute 1001 of the federal code, which makes it a punishable offense to lie to a federal agent. 1001 lies are different than, say, perjury (the kind of lies Bill Clinton told) because 1001 liars aren’t under oath. They’re just sitting in a room having coffee with federal agents of any stripe-could be I.R.S., D.E.A. or F.B.I.

According to Washington, D.C., white-collar criminal-defense lawyer William Jeffress, 1001 was born in the McCarthy era, to ensure that people didn’t lie when asked if they were communists on attestation forms required of federal employees. Over the years, it’s been applied ever more widely.

Section 1001 reaches a wide range of offenses, most of which really are offenses, such as lying on applications for Social Security benefits, Mr. Jeffress said. “The controversial use is when it is applied to lying to the I.R.S., D.E.A., C.I.A. and other agents.”

Until very recently, the 1001 statute was interpreted as extending to lies to agents in criminal investigations. “There was a doctrine developed by the courts called the ‘exculpatory no’ doctrine,” Mr. Jeffress said. “When a government agent asked you, ‘Did you commit a crime?’ and you denied it, that was not permitted to be the basis of the 1001.”

Five years ago, the Supreme Court threw out the “exculpatory no,” closing that exception to the rule.

Since then, Mr. Jeffress said, more people have been nailed for lying when the underlying offense isn’t charged or can’t be proved. One of his clients, a former insurance commissioner of the state of Louisiana, was acquitted on all corruption charges but convicted on 1001 and spent six months in jail.

“There have been other cases in which people were acquitted of the misconduct, but convicted of 1001 or perjury,” he said. “It happens more times than I can count.”

Mr. Jeffress, being a defense attorney, doesn’t think much of this developing application of the statute. “The U.S. is one of the few civilized countries to make lying to a policeman a crime,” he said.

The gallery of gloating Martha-loathers have pointed out relentlessly that her lie to the cops was just a very ill-advised manifestation of a lifetime habit of embellishing and fibbing-a hallmark of her personal style, not just her brand.

America’s growing obsession with truth-telling is at odds with the facts on the ground. Studies have consistently shown that we’re quite a lyin’ nation. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman conducted a study on lying, in which he put people in a room with a stranger and asked them to describe themselves for 10 minutes. Then the subjects were asked to watch a videotape of their encounter and identify each time they said something inaccurate. Sixty percent of the participants had said at least one untrue thing, and the average participant had lied at least three times.

Mr. Feldman also found that men and women lied at the same rate, but with slight differences in the kind of lies. Women were more likely to lie to make the other person feel better about him- or herself, and men tended to lie to make themselves look better.

This would seem to indicate that Martha was behaving in a manly fashion when she told her 1001 lie.

“It seems to be a strange law,” said Charles Ford, University of Alabama psychologist and author of Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit . Mr. Ford has studied lying for 40 years and believes it’s a fundamental part of the social fabric. In other words, people are lying all the time.

“Most of the lies we tell are not terribly malignant,” Mr. Ford said. “They serve one of two purposes. They serve to make someone else feel better: ‘My, what a pretty frock you are wearing!’-but even you think it’s from Goodwill. Or they make you feel more important: ‘I was talking to a reporter from The New York Times !’ So whatever it is that makes one feel more admirable, powerful people tend to add a little on. Lying is a lubricant of polite society.”

No one knew that better than Martha Stewart, self-made expert in the edible and sensory fabrications that make up gracious living.

Robert Lawry is the director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve University. He knows the statistics that show most people tell a certain benign kind of lie on a daily basis. He doesn’t put Martha Stewart’s lying in that category, though.

“Everyone can figure out the reasoning behind having a statute like [1001],” he said. “Investigators are at a real disadvantage if you can lie to them and get away with it. Now, is it worth it to pursue someone for lying? This is a minor crime. So you are going to pursue it when you think something else is at stake. Maybe you want to muscle them into giving up someone else. Everybody assumes, in Martha Stewart’s case, it’s an example-a deterrent.”

Even if the 1001 hadn’t been applied, Martha Stewart was going down.

I base this on my own admittedly minimal brush with Ms. Stewart’s “real” persona. Back in 1992, my friend, photographer Gwendolen Cates, and I had wedged ourselves into the V.I.P. dais at the MTV ball at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration down in Washington. In this perfumed circle of hell, the fabulous were packed in like sardines, all oblivious to the fact that the peon floor below was actually friendly, uncrowded and much more comfortable.

On this dais, we were shoulder to shoulder with more famous people than you could pack into a camera spray of the Oscars’ red carpet. We couldn’t move without rubbing butts with Sigourney Weaver or smelling Robert Patrick’s minty breath. Ms. Cates had recently photographed the pundit John McLaughlin, and he was suddenly nearby, unable to resist laying a paw on her young shoulder and rekindling their acquaintance.

That glittering evening, the septuagenarian stud was arm candy for none other than Martha herself, regal in a silvery chocolate gown. Ms. Cates-addled by celebrity overload and momentarily losing her keen photographer’s eye for ID’ing the famous-turned to Martha and, holding out her hand, said, “I’m Gwendolen Cates,” leaving the kind of pause that invites the shake-ee to identify herself in kind. Martha didn’t do that, and instead uttered a phrase that until then I had assumed belonged only among the urban legends of fame.

“Don’t you know who I am?” said the queen of thread counts and cupcakes to my friend. Before you could say “Did she really say that?”, she vanished into the crush of celebrity flesh.

Oh, Martha, we hardly knew ye then-but do we ever now!

That brush with the real Martha notwithstanding, I enjoyed her diary in grocery-store lines and sometimes even bought the magazine. Her little pear tart with cream-cheese crust is a mainstay in my repertoire.

String me up, but I still think Martha Stewart is a national treasure.

I don’t know a thing about keeping my clothes moth-free, I was over 30 before I knew which fork to use, and I learned just this weekend what a “trivet” is. I don’t know how to match paint and drapes, and I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Art Deco and Bakelite. Granted, I’ve not made much of an effort this way. I usually gravitate toward company where the conversation is more interesting than the furniture.

Martha’s information was thus all the more critical to me, and her demise is that much more disappointing. She knew stuff Mom never told me about gracious living. Who’s going to tell me how to arrange a vase now?

For closet-and real-homemakers, Martha Stewart’s recipes and home-improvement tips were the only truth that mattered. For that reason, we hope the penalty is not too harsh and that she comes home soon.