From the penthouse to the big house

Sam Waksal, Martha Stewart's convicted friend, talks about trading his New York high life for seven years of hard time.

By Tina Brown
Published July 24, 2003 10:11PM (EDT)

Jeffery Archer would feel at home in the Hamptons. New York's East Coast playground right now is the social scene of the crime. It's crawling with uptown parolees and high-end cons. Everyone's feting felons. If you're indicted, you're invited. The post-Enron era feels like the nearly '90s all over again, when Wall Street was in its penal prime.

The missing guest is Martha's pal Dr. Sam Waksal, once feted for his quest to market a new drug for colon cancer. While his friends flee the city on their private planes, the biotech millionaire, ex-chairman of ImClone and medical man about town has packed up his stylish SoHo loft to go to jail. I went by to see him with one of his friends just before he disappeared into the slammer for insider trading, tax evasion on art buys and obstruction of justice (i.e., lying to the feds).

He was nursing a sore gum. Upscale prisoners-to-be spend the last days of freedom in an orgy of root canal work. Jailhouse dentistry is notoriously fiendish and Waksal will be inside for seven years, no parole. His bitterest reflection is that he'll be locked up when Erbitux, the drug he battled to develop, will finally be helping cancer patients. It's about to receive approval from the FDA, the very agency whose rejection in 2001 triggered Waksal's illegal panic alert to family stockholders and the spiral of his decline.

In his glory days as a 50-something divorcé, Waksal's expressive walnut face could be seen at Manhattan power dinners working the room with an intellectual showmanship that was as much catnip to women as to investors. All that winner's spin has subsided and he has reverted to the more interesting self he submerged long ago -- the worldly nerd with a questing mind, who probably would have been of little interest to the high rollers. He sits framed by blank walls (his Rothkos and DeKoonings have gone). An electronic ankle bracelet peeps from his khaki chinos. "If I was told I have a choice," he says, "between canceling my sentence or postponing Erbitux again I'd choose jail every time." It sounds like a defense mechanism prison shrinks call "dissonance reduction," but Waksal is genuinely haunted by the scandal's impact on his proud parents who survived the Holocaust. "Mother is not doing well with all of this. My daughter told her, 'Dad will get through it. Think of how you got through Auschwitz.' And she said, 'Yes, but Auschwitz was only one year.'"

Waksal's biggest fear is not the loss of freedom. It's being unproductive. "As long as I can read and write I'll feel less scared." He's decided to teach himself Italian and ancient Greek. "Do you know how much time one wastes in real life?" he says with a touch of his old brio. "Answering the phone? Going out to dinner? Trying to get laid?"

He recalls a beautiful girl he dated who was interested only in gifts and trips. "As I walked away, feeling guilty about ending the affair, she called out, 'Sam!' I turned around expecting tears of regret. She said, 'The water ski instructor needs to be paid in cash.'"

Memories like this may help Sam Waksal say goodbye to the man he was.

Clearly, the tabloid cliché of millionaire cons living it up at a Club Fed "open prison" is way off. An assignment to a "medical facility" is not a soft option. It's where the Bureau of Prisons dumps some of the biggest sickos. At the federal prison where the stately Sotheby's CEO Al Taubman did time, he was liable to run into Justin Volpe, the famously evil New York cop who sodomized a Haitian detainee with the handle of a floor mop.

Taubman looks misleadingly svelte now, and so does the former big-shot lawyer, Al Pirro, a graduate from Eglin Prison Camp in Florida on a tax rap, but they will tell you there is no such thing as easy time. Pirro, who has rebounded as a successful public real estate negotiator, coped with prison by deploying a Zen approach. "I lived moment by moment, never discussing anything about my life with the other inmates." On Day 1 of his sentence, he told me, an inmate approached him.

"He said, 'Don't worry, it's not that bad. Do you play golf?'
"I said, 'Yeah, I play golf.'
"'You'll love Mondays then. Tennis?'
"'Yeah, tennis is good.'
"'Well, all we do on Tuesdays is play tennis. You like smoking cigars and playing billiards?'
"'Sounds great.'
"'Wednesdays will be good. You gay?'
"'You'll hate Thursdays then.'"

A joke, of course. But what's real, said Pirro, is the fear of attracting "diesel therapy," which can be administered pretty much on whim. Officially, what's involved is simply a prison transfer. The destination prison may be better or worse, but the trip itself is the real punishment. It's hell -- worse if they want to make it so. By comparison with diesel therapy, Jeffrey Archer's three-hour transfer in a 4x3 sweatbox was a joy ride. The U.S. prisoner is cuffed at a 90 degree angle, shackled at the ankles, chained by the waist to other cons, and stuffed into a stifling van (hence the "diesel"). It stops only to pick up desperadoes from other "body warehouses" with the unlovely prospect of sharing sleepovers with them in a different correctional hellhole every night. This can go on for a week, or months -- the marshals have 180 days to get you there. Meanwhile, family and lawyer have no idea where you are. And God help you if you have to relieve yourself more often than once every four hours.

I didn't have the heart to tell Sam Waksal about these researches into diesel therapy. I can only wish the poor guy well with his studies of Italian and ancient Greek.

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Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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