Stupak: Martha Can't Hide

Martha Stewart can run, but she can't hide -- especially from congressional oversight committee members bent on wringing any info from her that she might have on the insider trading scandal at pharmaceutical company ImClone.

One of them, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., last week went on the offensive against the queen of home industrial arts.

"I think it's time to say, 'put up or shut up.' Martha Stewart should be subpoenaed," said Stupak, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, which is investigating ImClone executives' stock sell-off following unofficial word that the Food and Drug Administration was going to reject Erbitux, its star-making cancer drug.

ImClone CEO Sam Waksal was indicted last week on federal fraud and obstruction of justice charges. Waksal's advice to the home fashion designer, whom he admits is a friend, is being called into question.

Stewart has been asked by the committee to testify and hand over files related to the sale of nearly $4,000 worth of her shares of company stock, which took place a day before the stock plunged.

If Stewart acted on a tip from pal Waksal, she could be charged with insider trading. If she lied when she said in preliminary interviews with the subcommittee that her selling of the shares weren't connected with any tip, she could be bagged for obstruction of justice.

So far, neither Stewart, who heads Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., nor her records have appeared before the subcommittee. Stupak said the panel will subpoena both before the summer is out if she refuses to cooperate.

"She has pulled back from even having discussions with us," said Stupak, who took his challenge to Stewart over the airwaves and in the newspapers. "I'm not being hard on Martha Stewart. We are an oversight committee. You just can’t allow a witness not to cooperate with the committee."

The ultimate decision to subpoena Stewart will be made by full committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, D-La., but his spokesman suggested Friday that she should expect no reprieve.

While on the national scene Stupak may not be a familiar face, the five-term lawmaker said this latest plunge into the muck of corporate shenanigans should prove back home that he takes no bull.

"We allowed companies to get away with this," he said, blaming the passage of the 1995 Private Securities Litigation Reform, which made it more difficult for company officials to be sued based on public projections they had made about the business and the stock.

"Until we change that 1995 law, get your money out of the market. It's not safe," charged Stupak, who opposed the measure when it came for a vote back then.

And if his appeal back home is any indication, most of his constituents will probably heed his advice.

A pro-life environmentalist who represents a socially conservative, but split-down-the-middle district in terms of party affiliation, Stupak appears to have appealed to both sides of the aisle by cultivating trust, say political observers.

"He's pretty much invincible in the district," said John Loosemore, who is nonetheless running against Stupak on the Libertarian ticket for a third time. He said he bears no illusions that he will win the race, but likes to serve as a sort of public service gadfly on Stupak's campaign trail.

Remapping has made this very large 1st Congressional District -- which includes the cold, former iron mining counties of the Upper Peninsula as well as the southern resort towns on lakes Michigan and Huron -- more Democratic.

Despite that fact, Loosemore and Republican opponent Donald Hooper say there are cracks in the Stupak veneer. For one, he turned his back on the gun rights community when he voted for stricter background checks at gun shows. Secondly, Hooper calls Stupak a holdover from the Clinton years that makes some folks just plain uncomfortable.

"Right now, he's been there for 10 years and he's creating a dynasty -- that's not what the framers designed for this country," said Hooper, who said Stupak is too liberal. "We want a change."

But Stupak's colleagues say he has worked well for the local economy and the environment.

"He was the first to call for a ban on drilling for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes," said Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich., who lost her own primary bid to veteran Democratic Rep. John Dingell this week.

"He is ideally suited for the job," added Michigan Sen. Deb Stabenow, "and he seems to know every patron of every coffee shop in every small town in northern Michigan."

Yet, Stupak has been challenged by other matters besides the political. When his 17-year-old son took his own life on Mother's Day 2000, the lawmaker and his wife Laurie were devastated, and it almost caused him to drop out of the running for another term.

Instead, he held hearings on the effects of the popular acne medication Accutane taken by his son and of which the FDA has issued warnings regarding negative psychological side effects. The congressman has made it an ongoing effort to investigate its potential dangers.

Stupak said that he will talk the economy, prescription drugs and education on the campaign trail because he knows he can speak with authority on them.

"I can speak on these issues with credibility for my constituents," said Stupak, who is proud of his work on the Energy and Commerce Committee. "They see me as a leader on those issues. They see what I do in Washington and they feel like they are a part of it."