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Can This Man Save Martha?

Veteran criminal-defense attorney Robert Morvillo is the last thing standing between Martha Stewart and federal prison. Never mind that the Brooklyn-born Morvillo is built like Don Zimmer and sounds like Ed Koch. For Martha, he could be the ultimate good thing.


Robert Morvillo  

Martha Stewart’s defense lawyer is a mess. He’s the first to admit it. “Take a seat over there,” Robert Morvillo says, “if you can clear a space.”

He laughs, settling in behind a desk whose every inch is covered with clutter. There’s a baseball autographed by Joe DiMaggio. A plastic bust of Mozart. A New York State Police uniform patch. Envelopes stamped MORVILLO: CONFIDENTIAL. Open cans of Diet Coke. A giveaway Knicks coffee mug. An Irish flag on a spindly stick threatening to topple over. “I lost a bet on the Italy-Ireland soccer game, so I had to put the Irish flag on my desk,” Morvillo says with a shrug. “Years ago.” Which is easy to believe: The older junk is coated with dust. On the wall behind Morvillo hang black-and-white photographs of baseball immortals; several have slipped halfway out of their frames.

Though Morvillo is an unshakable Mets fan, his 64-year-old physique is pure Don Zimmer. He tips back in a worn blue chair and folds his hands on his ample belly. As he talks, his eyes fix on the farthest corner of the ceiling. Maybe it’s simply an eccentricity. Then Morvillo says something in passing that seems to give his upward gaze meaning. “She’s upstairs,” he says. “Working.”

She, of course, is Martha Stewart. In a tenth-floor conference room one flight above Morvillo’s midtown office, the embattled domestic mogul pores over documents and retraces every thought and action relating to her fateful sale of 3,928 shares of ImClone stock, worth $228,000.

And she waits to resume sparring with Morvillo. He’s preparing Stewart for the likelihood that she’ll need to make a pivotal appearance on the witness stand. “I’m by far the nastiest person in my firm,” Morvillo says with a smile. “I’m rougher on her than any prosecutor will be.”

Later, on the phone, Stewart says she loves Morvillo’s toughness. But will his rugged training make a real cross-examination look tame? Stewart chuckles nervously. “I don’t know,” she says, “if I believe that.”

Martha’s need for control is much mocked, if somewhat exaggerated. Now Stewart, 62, has been forced to surrender command of her fate. She’s handed it to a man who is nearly as anonymous as she is famous, even though Bob Morvillo has been one of the city’s savviest white-collar criminal-defense attorneys for more than three decades—and is a great old-school New York character with an Ed Koch–ian nasal delivery, a flaming temper, and a Brooklyn–Long Island accent that turns totally into tote-lee and Martha into Mar-thur. “He’s the boss,” Stewart says.

Morvillo’s stellar reputation inside the legal community is founded primarily on smooth behind-the-scenes deal-making, avoiding trouble for clients like Merrill Lynch and Amerada Hess. He’s had a few headline trials—like the bribery rap against real-estate broker John Zaccaro, Geraldine Ferraro’s husband—but those battles took place long before cable TV transformed the celebrity trial into a frothing spectacle. “Am I gonna like it when I turn on the television and see some nitwit criticizing me? No, I’m not,” Morvillo says. “Am I going to change the next day because of what that nitwit said? I hope not.”

Stewart has the most at stake, of course, and Morvillo places her best interests far above any other concerns. Still, retirement is on his mind and the Stewart case is likely his last chance to play before an audience of millions. “The glare of publicity is so high on this one,” he says. “It’s gotta have an effect on your psyche and your ego. There’s a stronger desire to win not just for the client but to preserve your own sense of yourself. You can’t let that get out of hand.”

Especially when he’s facing prosecutors who are equally conscious of the spotlight and eager to nail Stewart on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and securities fraud. The government’s late-October failure to convict investment banker Frank Quattrone of obstruction of justice has only made the Feds hungrier for victory in their next big corporate-corruption trial. The lead prosecutor in the Stewart case is Karen Seymour, head of the Southern District’s criminal division. “The only thing rarer than the head of the criminal division trying a case is the U.S. Attorney himself doing it,” says Robert Heim, a former SEC prosecutor turned white-collar-defense lawyer.

For once in her life, Stewart needs substance far more than style. Morvillo presents himself as just-folks, a regular hardworking guy who has been lucky to earn a decent living. “Inertia,” he says, “is one of the prime forces in my life.” The lack of pretense is genuine. But clients don’t pay Morvillo $650 an hour because he’s good company. Morvillo is probably the most cunning strategist of his generation of high-powered New York white-collar-defense lawyers, a group made up of legends like Charles Stillman (whose clients include Tyco’s former chief financial officer) and Stanley Arkin (Revlon’s Ron Perelman).

Last week, Morvillo began to outline his plan for saving Martha. On January 20, he’ll start selecting twelve jurors who somehow haven’t been marinated in the nearly two years of anti-Martha hype. His most difficult decision—whether to put Stewart on the stand—will come roughly three weeks later, after he’s seen the prosecution’s case. That’s when the flashiest thing about Bob Morvillo, his trial skills, will take center stage. “Part of it comes from experience,” he says. “And part of it you’re just born with.”

His father was a lawyer who never practiced. M. Victor Morvillo had the misfortune to graduate from St. John’s in the late thirties, so he did what the Depression dictated, taking the first decent job he found, with Metropolitan Life Insurance. His wife, Marie, was a licensed pharmacist who became a homemaker after Bob, their first child, was born. The family moved from Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, to Long Island in 1944. Morvillo still lives in Rockville Centre, the town where he grew up.

Though he excelled in high school, Morvillo says he had no aims or ambitions and can’t explain his choice of college. “People wanted to go to Penn and Dartmouth and Cornell,” he says. “I ended up at Colgate.” He decided to take a shot a law school because, well, that’s what his father did. This time, he set his sights a little higher, and at Columbia Morvillo made Law Review. That same year, 1963, he married Catherine Shields, a second-grade teacher.

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