Fed Details ‘Ambush’ of Seifert

NEW YORK A federal investigator on Wednesday described in U.S. District Court how he ambushed former Ogilvy & Mather executive Shona Seifert in her office in order to question her about an alleged attempt by the agency to fraudulently inflate its bills to the government.

The testimony came as the trial of Seifert and co-defendant Thomas Early was twice thrown off course late in the afternoon. A juror insisted he could not hear testimony on Monday because he had to attend the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, and prosecutors objected to the presentation of a defense witness list.

That witness list stated that Seifert “reserves the right” to testify, prosecutors said. The defense is apparently waiting until the last minute to reveal whether Seifert will take the stand.

Seifert, a former Ogilvy executive group director, and Early, a former agency finance director, are on trial here, accused of masterminding a scheme to defraud the federal government on the $1 billion Office of National Drug Control Policy account. Both have both pled not guilty.

Earlier in the day, Patrick Sullivan, a former agent for the Government Accountability Office’s special investigations unit, told how he arrived unannounced at Ogilvy’s headquarters in New York on Sept. 6, 2000, in an attempt to question Seifert about the White House’s anti-drug account.

Sullivan arrived at lunchtime, when Seifert was not present. Her assistant, Sally Axelrod, allowed Sullivan to wait in Seifert’s office until she came back. Upon her return, Seifert was peppered with questions about apparently duplicated timesheets that the agency was submitting in its billing of the account.

Seifert told Sullivan she was “shocked” at his allegations, Sullivan said, and that “she had never heard of any discussion … that there was any shortfall [in the agency’s revenue on the business] … It was the first she had heard of that.”

Sullivan’s testimony was potentially damaging to Seifert because it painted her as a liar. The jury has heard multiple witnesses discuss how a $3 million shortfall in revenue on the account was identified months earlier. The New York co-president had taken the stand earlier in the trial to tell how he had personally told Seifert and her co-defendant Early to “fix” the shortfall in 1999.

Sullivan came back to the agency the next day, this time with an appointment to see Early. Early had a lawyer with him and, Sullivan said, told a similar story to Seifert: “He told us he had no knowledge of false billing” and that the “first he’d heard of it was the day before because of our interview with Shona Seifert.”

Axelrod was also on the stand today to testify against her former boss. What she had to say was also damaging, due more to the fact that the judge and jury clearly warmed to her as a person, rather than because of the substance of what she had to say. The court even heard about Axelrod’s agency nickname (“Agent Red Finger”), so coined because of a rubber sheath she wore on her finger when paging through stacks of timesheets filed by Seifert’s subordinates.

Like other Ogilvy execs, Axelrod testified pursuant to an agreement that she not be prosecuted for altering her timesheets. Seifert allegedly signed all those altered timesheets.

The worst moment for Seifert came when Axelrod was asked about a conversation she had with Al DiOrio, the contract coordinator on the ONDCP account. “It’s all about money,” she said was the reason she was given. “Ogilvy was entitled to a certain profit from the ONDCP account and that it fell short a little bit.”

Axelrod hardly looked at Seifert as she testified, even though the pair shared work environs for eight years. Seifert’s work often kept Axelrod in the office until after midnight, she testified, including one 15-hour shift that ended at 12:30 a.m. the day after the July 4 holiday in 1999.

The jury also got to look at the inside of Seifert’s desk calendar today. One entry, for 5 p.m. on Dec. 21, 1999, read simply: “See Tom early re financial issues f/up.” No explanation was given for “f/up,” but it appeared that many in the court drew their own conclusions.

At the end of the day, Judge Richard Berman informed the court that juror No. 8, an employee of Island Def Jam who has worked in Ogilvy’s building and who worked on promotions in the past with the agency, said he could not continue to hear the case because he had to be at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday.

The judge asked the lawyers if they wanted him replaced with an alternate. The prosecution expressed no opinion other than to indicate they felt he was one of the more attentive jurors (a different panelist has slept through the trial most days). The defense, however, made a spirited argument to delay the trial until No. 8’s return.

Juror No. 8 is one of two jurors on the panel who has previous connections with Ogilvy. The other is juror No. 5, a former employee of a Washington, D.C., radio station who said she sold ad space to Ogilvy.

Eventually, the judge agreed not to hear testimony on Monday.

Seifert’s lawyers presented a list of at least seven witnesses they want to call—the defense’s case likely starts tomorrow. The government immediately objected to three of those witnesses, all of whom were presented as experts.

One of them is billed as “the president of a media firm” who is an expert on media buying. The exec was not named.

The judge has yet to rule on the objection.