If Marge Schott is a crook, she is a clumsy crook. She makes the wet bandits from Home Alone look like Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The Cincinnati Reds' deposed owner stands accused of devising an elaborate conspiracy to defraud mighty General Motors, only to leave a trail any tenderfoot could trace.
In her desperate attempt to hold on to her underperforming Chevrolet-Geo dealership, Schott allegedly fabricated sales figures, hid unsold vehicles and authorized a phony paper trail. Then she failed to cover her tracks by getting her story straight with the purported purchasers.
''I didn't know anything about it until I got a notice in the mail,'' a former Reds employee recalled. ''She had me down for a Chevy Blazer. I'm still waiting for it.''
GM alleges 57 such sham transactions in its case before the Ohio Motor Vehicle Dealers Board. If these claims are accurate, Schott is sure to lose her dealership as a result of this deception and her failure to meet agreed-upon sales quotas. If that is the extent of the damage she endures, she should consider it a Christmas present.
More than a minor dispute
This is not merely an intramural dispute between a local dealer and a distant corporation. GM's concerns notwithstanding, Schott may have compelled numerous employees and duped dozens of acquaintances into participating in a plot that purportedly netted her $19,397.84 in unearned incentive bonuses. That, friends, is felony-level fraud. Schott has since repaid the money, according to Reds' marketing director Chip Baker, but she could still face federal mail fraud charges.
Perhaps Johnnie Cochran could convince us otherwise, but this case fairly screams of criminal intent. The question is whether anyone in authority is paying attention.
''Until we get a complaint from GM, we won't be looking into it,'' said Leo Skinner, chief of public information for the Ohio Department of Public Safety. ''It looks like the issue is just between GM and Marge Schott.''
The myth about Marge Schott is that she is a shrewd businesswoman who succeeds by containing costs and staring down the chauvinist boys club at corporate. The truth is that sophisticated business strategy is as beyond her grasp, and even simple salesmanship represents a huge hurdle. (Simple Salesmanship Rule No. 1: Don't offend potential customers based on their religion, race or sexual preference.)
If Marge Schott had not inherited her wealth, she would probably be waiting tables at Frisch's. According to GM's accounting, Schott's Chevy dealership, located on a prime stretch of Montgomery Road, sold 89 vehicles during the second quarter of 1996. That's less than one sale per day, which is less than 96.7 percent of Schott's fellow Chevy dealers managed.
A reason for baseball to act
Business reversals do not disqualify Schott as a baseball owner. If they did, George Steinbrenner would be obliged to sell the New York Yankees because of his setbacks in shipbuilding. Fraud, however, is a different matter, and may justify a stern response from acting commissioner Bud Selig. Especially since the owner in question is already being sanctioned for other offenses.
Baseball's most recent suspension of Schott was prompted by her praise of Adolf Hitler, but was really the result of a long series of embarrassments. She subsequently decided - wisely - to adopt a lower profile and avoid interviews. If she did not learn a lesson, she at least realized that she was tethered to a tight leash.
Marge Schott knows she can never hope to run the Reds again if she starts running her mouth as recklessly as she has in the past. What is less clear is how baseball might respond to other kinds of crises.
Selig might view the GM flap as a violation of Schott's probation, or an unpardonable breach of integrity. He might decide that the best interests of baseball would be better served without her.
Truth be told, Selig probably made that decision several years ago. He may never get a better excuse.