Verdict Imminent In The Trial Of Seifert And Early

The fate of former Ogilvy & Mather executives Shona Seifert and Thomas Early now rests with a jury, which will decide whether they plotted to overbill the White House’s $1 billion anti-drug account to cover a $3 million shortfall in revenue at the WPP Group agency.

Throughout the trial, Early, the stoic former finance director, appeared to maintain an emotional distance while his lawyers repeatedly got witnesses to say they never talked or met with him. Seifert, the former executive group director, began the trial Feb. 1 all smiles but by last Friday looked serious and drawn.

Both defendants closed their cases in Manhattan’s U.S. District Court by admitting that other Ogilvy execs cheated the Office of National Drug Control Policy but also insisting they did not know about the scheme.

Highlights from last week’s hearings:


Shona Seifert took the stand and captivated the jury with testimony in her own defense. Jurors listened attentively as she told them she did not instruct anyone to falsely inflate their timesheets, conspire to overbill ONDCP or write a string of Post-It notes to staffers asking them to submit new timesheets months after the originals were filed. Rather, she asserted, timesheet changes occurred because staffers were making mistakes or not filling in hours at all. Seifert painted herself as an overworked executive, putting in 18-hour days filled with tasks such as reassuring Alaskan Inuits that some of the work would target them, or meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton and President Bill Clinton. Seifert described at length the growing catastrophe that befell the shop in 1999 when it began to realize it was too understaffed to handle the work. She gave a fuller description of a June 1999 meeting with Ogilvy New York co-president Bill Gray, who testified that he ordered Seifert and Early to “fix” the revenue shortfall. She said that when she told Gray about hundreds of missing—and therefore unbillable—timesheets, “he kind of rolled his eyes” and said, “I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do about that.” But 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. “That was the part I was uncomfortable about … reviewing timesheets was one thing, but revising them was another.” She said she told DiOrio, “It doesn’t matter what your intention is, the appearance is bad.”


After retaking the stand, Seifert said she was embarrassed about a memo to colleagues in which she wrote, “I’ll wring the money out of them. I promise”—a reference to ONDCP. She said the line referred to $900,000 in unpaid labor costs owed to Ogilvy. She remained calm under questioning by a prosecutor who suggested that her story “evolved” over the past four years in interviews with investigators from the FBI, the General Accountability Office and the ad agency’s lawyers. The government then introduced a string of e-mails into evidence that suggested DiOrio was considered an outsider by his colleagues and that his size made him the butt of jokes—an accusation Seifert vehemently denied.


Thomas Early, the last person to testify in the trial, illustrated the sometimes confusing nature of the defense’s strategy, which was to simultaneously suggest the overbilling was the result of innocent chaos within the agency and also that the alleged criminal scheme had nothing to do with Early or Seifert. Early conceded there could have been inaccuracies in billing ONDCP but said he did not instruct any Ogilvy employees to falsely inflate their timesheets. His lawyer, Laurence Urgenson, took him through e-mails—all of which prosecutors also used—that appeared to indicate that some Ogilvy executives knew their timesheets were fiction. Early said none of the employees mentioned worked on the account. “It seems like, looking back, they haven’t been accurate at all,” he said. Under cross examination, Early stuck to his position that the missing $3 million was not a “shortfall” he was responsible for but a difference between projections and actuals. Seifert’s lawyer closed by reminding jurors that ONDCP suffered only minor financial damage: “This trial will go down in the history of jurisprudence as the only fraud where the victim came out ahead,” Greg Craig said.


The jurors got the case and left for the long weekend before reaching a verdict. During the day they heard a cogent final presentation from Early’s lawyer, who constructed an alternate time line of events using the government’s evidence. Early missed chances to add staffers to the ONDCP payroll, he never altered his timesheets, and many of the more incriminating e-mails were never sent to him, Urgenson said. The most damaging e-mail Early did see—in which Zach informed him that their plan might become “transparent”—he didn’t read, Urgenson said. “There is nothing in this record that says Tom Early was aware they were billing improperly,” Urgenson concluded. The last thing jurors heard before disappearing into the jury room was assistant U.S. attorney Kim Berger telling them to ignore the defense theory that DiOrio—who is now deceased—was the real “mastermind” of the plan. She said it was DiOrio who was laughed at during a meeting of Ogilvy staffers when he asked them to follow federal rules by using the correct color pens when doing their timesheets. “Mastermind?” Berger asked. “This was the guy who couldn’t even convince anyone to use blue ink.”