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Gary Younge
Evidence piles up against TV guru Martha Stewart

The legal net was closing around America's domestic diva Martha Stewart yesterday, after investigators claimed they had "sufficient information" to file charges against her, and her lawyers pleaded with them to let her off with a fine in the civil courts rather than push ahead with criminal proceedings.

Ms Stewart is under investigation for insider trading after she sold shares in a biotechnology company in December 2001 just before they nosedived in value.

With several magazines, a syndicated television programme and her own product lines, she is a brand name in her own right and America's answer to Delia Smith.

Federal securities regulators have warned Ms Stewart, who is being investigated by the justice department, the securities and exchange commission and Congress, that they have "sufficient information" to file civil insider-trading charges in the next few weeks. They are awaiting a justice department inquiry into accusations of obstruction of justice and criminal insider-trading before they do so.

In a private meeting with the Manhattan US attorney Jim Comey on Thursday, Ms Stewart's lawyers attempted to avert a criminal prosecution with a plea for her to pay a civil fine, arguing that since she made so little money on the deal that a criminal prosecution would be overkill.

Ms Stewart sold almost 4,000 shares of ImClone System's stock worth $228,000 (£140,000) one day before the US government announced that it would not approve an ImClone drug to fight colon cancer. Stewart says she had a prearranged deal with her broker to sell the shares if the price fell below $60, which it did on December 27, 2001.

Her stockbroker's assistant, Douglas Faneuil, who is cooperating with the FBI after pleading guilty to a misdemeanour, has contradicted Ms Stewart's account.

Sam Waksal, the founder of ImClone and a close friend of Ms Stewart, has already pleaded guilty to tipping off his father and daughter that the value of the stock would fall.

Ms Stewart's public troubles have delivered a severe blow to her business fortunes. In November her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, reported a 42% drop in profits while its stock market value fell dramatically since the investigation started before recovering half its losses. The case has cost her about $400m so far in legal fees and lost business opportunities.

Her plight has become a national joke. Last year a mock magazine cover of Martha Stewart Living Behind Bars was circulated on the internet while the comedy host, Conan O'Brien, quoted her as recommending "a subpoena should be served with a nice appetiser".

In a weekend interview with the New Yorker Ms Stewart showed little humility. "The thinner the chopsticks, the higher the social status," she told the magazine's reporter, after serving Hunan chicken. "Of course I got the thinnest I could find. That's why people hate me."

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