Seifert Takes the Stand

NEW YORK Shona Seifert, the former Ogilvy & Mather executive accused of orchestrating a billings scam on the White House’s anti-drug ad account, on Tuesday testified in her own defense here in U.S. District Court.

She gave lengthy, detailed answers to many of the specific allegations made against her by former colleagues and prosecutors.

Seifert and co-defendant Thomas Early, another former Ogilvy executive, have pled not guilty.

In court today, Seifert said she did not instruct anyone to falsely inflate their timesheets. She also said she did not conspire to bill the Office of National Drug Control Policy for more work than Ogilvy had done, and she denied writing a string of Post-It Notes to staffers ordering them to submit new timesheets weeks and months after their originals were filed.

Rather, she insisted, timesheet changes occurred because staffers were making mistakes or not filling in their hours at all. In fact, she said, she didn’t care about the $3 million shortfall in the agency’s revenue on the $1 billion business because the client was adding more tasks onto the original contract, guaranteeing a larger revenue stream down the line.

Toward the end of the day, Seifert fired back at many of the Ogilvy executives who have previously taken the stand to accuse her of instructing them to go along with the alleged fraud.

Among those who were either mistaken or gave inaccurate testimony, she said, were: former account executive Melissa Cunningham, print production chief Joe Burke, managing director of consumer research Johanna Shapira, senior partner/management supervisor Janet Berg, former president of national broadcast Peter Chrisanthopoulos, former account supervisor Laura Weikam and executive assistant Sally Axelrod.

It was a performance that clearly captured the jury, which appeared much more attentive and alert than they have on days past, when at least two of them have taken naps while witnesses testified.

Seifert also gave much longer, more detailed answers than her accusers, explaining the changing dynamic of the agency’s relationship with the client and the growing catastrophe that befell the shop in 1999 when it began to realize that it was too understaffed and inexperienced to handle the workload.

For instance, she gave a fuller description of the attention paid to the issue by New York co-president Bill Gray, who testified that he ordered Seifert and her codefendant, former finance director Thomas Early, to “fix” the revenue shortfall.

Seifert met with Gray about 20 times in 1999, she testified. “He knew about the timesheets because I went to him in June,” she said, referring to hundreds of missing timesheets that Ogilvy was unable to bill the client for. “He kind of rolled his eyes,” she said of Gray, and said, “I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about that.”

That testimony dovetailed perfectly with the defense’s strategy, which is partly to convince the jury that Ogilvy, like all ad agencies, has a corporate culture that is hostile to filling in timesheets. Seifert recounted her time at an unnamed London shop where, she said, creative executives gave out a prize at Christmas to any employee who had managed to go a whole year without completing a timesheet.

In another marked contrast to the testimony of Gray, Seifert easily deciphered a chart of Ogilvy’s third-quarter revenue for 1999, one that Gray had claimed he did not understand. “It’s a very simple chart,” Seifert said. It demonstrated that Ogilvy had already made its forecasted revenue projections for 1999 by about September of that year.

“He told me in September he was thrilled because for the first time he could remember Ogilvy New York had made its numbers for the year [in September]. He was delighted,” she said.

Gray appeared to have little recollection of that success when he testified in the first week of the trial.

Overall, however, Seifert’s testimony focused on the notion that she was incredibly overworked, putting in 18-hour days filled with every conceivable task, such as reassuring Alaskan Inuits that some of the anti-drug money would be spent targeting them, or meeting with celebrities like Rev. Al Sharpton and President Bill Clinton, and talking on the phone with representatives of ice skater Tara Lipinski, all of whom wanted to influence or appear in the campaign.

When asked the key question — Did she ever ask anyone to change or alter their timesheets? — she replied, “No I did not. I just asked everyone to please do their timesheets.”

The weakest part of her testimony came when she allowed that she had doubts when Ogilvy’s former contract manager, Al DiOrio, explained to her that he would have to go back and alter timesheets that had errors, such as where staffers had billed time to the pro bono “Drug Council” account instead of ONDCP. Another source of errors for the shop was the particular needs of the client, she said, which would not accept timesheets filled out in black ink (only blue), or those which had crossed-out hours corrected with liquid paper.

“You have to do this, they won’t accept them the way they are,” she recalled DiOrio telling her. “That was the part I was uncomfortable about … reviewing timesheets was one thing, but revising them was another.”

“It doesn’t matter what your intention is, the appearance is bad; the appearance looks bad,” she said. But she insisted that the only timesheets that were revised were those in which staffers had genuinely billed the wrong client. And the only timesheets filled out retroactively were ones that had never been filled out originally, she said.

Seifert’s freewheeling, lengthy answers also brought out her personality, and her reputation as an agency executive who has a talent for presentations. It was as if Seifert, and not her lawyer Greg Craig, was in control of the interrogation. Her British accent filled the courtroom uninterrupted for minutes at a time, far longer than any other witness. At one point, Craig was forced to interrupt his own client in order to move her testimony along. At another, someone in the courtroom sneezed and Seifert paused to say “Bless you!”

Seifert also described how the ONDCP began to become disenchanted with Ogilvy less than a year after the agency took on the business. “Client frustration was mounting rapidly,” she said.

At one point, former ONDCP director Alan Levitt wrote an e-mail that said the agency, “for the record, it’s doing a horrible job—yes that’s the word.”

The same e-mail mentioned that the previous shops on the account—Bates and Zenith Media—had done better. Levitt’s particular complaint was about the seriousness with which Ogilvy was taking the media matches—the free ad time that TV networks had to agree to provide if they wanted to get some of the paid advertising. The matches were important, Levitt wrote, and “O&M is treating it as if it weren’t.”

Another e-mail expressed the client’s “total dissatisfaction” with the agency.

Seifert also decoded a curious entry in her desk calendar that the prosecution had focused on in its case. The Dec. 17, 1999, notation read, “See Tom Early re financial issues f/up.” Some observers in the court had assumed “f/up” was a four-lettered reference to the revenue shortfall. But, Seifert said Tuesday, it actually meant “follow up.”

Seifert was still on the stand late Tuesday afternoon and is expected to continue her testimony Wednesday. Her appearance followed that of Ruth Wooden, former president of the Ad Council, who testified briefly as an expert witness on agency billing procedures.