Pellicano lawyers act to shift case's focus

Defense attorneys for Anthony Pellicano have asked prosecutors for documents they say will show that authorities first investigated the Hollywood private eye for allegedly audiotaping an FBI agent.

The government has said the long-running probe stemmed from a threat against a Los Angeles Times reporter investigating organized crime in Hollywood. But months before the threat, agents went to the sleuth's office to search for a recording of law enforcement personnel, according to a federal subpoena.

The defense requests signal an effort to shift the focus of the case from celebrity wiretapping to claims of government misconduct. In a 2005 letter to the prosecution, recently reviewed by The Times, the attorney for one of Pellicano's co-defendants said the alleged tape was of an Internet entrepreneur offering FBI Special Agent Dale Walker Jr. $30,000 to investigate a business opponent.

The FBI investigated the bribe allegation and found it to be "baseless," according to Special Assistant Director in Charge Steven Tidwell of the Los Angeles office. In FBI reports on the probe recently reviewed by The Times, Walker said he recalled as "vaguely familiar" conversations about "having government agents investigate, prosecute and intimidate" the entrepreneur's rival.

"If such statements took place, Walker can not recall in what context such statements could have been made or who made such statements," the FBI report says. "It is possible that Walker ... made such statements in the context of ... telephone conversations."

The FBI report added: "To the best of Special Agent Walker's recollection, Walker does not recall a discussion of a payment to anyone to include a $30,000 payment. If someone told [him] that someone was going to get paid and/or receive this or any other amount, Walker does not recall this."

The Internet entrepreneur, Ami Shafrir, denied offering a bribe, but said the alleged recordings of his conversations with Walker spurred the Pellicano investigation.

"The tape of Dale Walker talking to me is what opened the whole can of worms on this Pellicano thing," Shafrir said. "But we never had a conversation even insinuating anything about a bribe."

Pellicano is due to stand trial in August on charges of illegally tapping into confidential communications and law enforcement databases for information to provide his Hollywood and legal clients the upper hand in courtroom battles.

Defense attorneys have repeatedly attacked the integrity of the government's 2002 search of Pellicano's Sunset Strip offices, which produced evidence not only for the wiretap case, but also for separate charges of illegal possession of explosives, to which Pellicano pleaded guilty in 2003. A previous defense effort to overturn the search warrant failed.

"The search of Mr. Pellicano's office was a subterfuge to look for something else," Pellicano defense lawyer Steven F. Gruel said in an April 2006 court motion to force the prosecution to turn over the audiotape. "The FBI's interest in Pellicano may [stem from] the fact that Pellicano allegedly recorded an FBI agent."

Prosecutors and investigators declined to comment, citing a court protective order. Walker, who has since been transferred to an FBI office in Birmingham, Ala., referred questions to the Los Angeles bureau.

The Pellicano investigation exploded into public view in November 2002 with an FBI search warrant affidavit stating that a confidential informant had produced audiotapes implicating the private eye in a threat against journalist Anita Busch, who was investigating alleged ties of actor Steven Seagal to organized crime. Pellicano has never been charged in that case.

But months before the threat, the FBI learned that Pellicano may have wiretapped Shafrir talking with FBI agents and others.

Shafrir and his wife, Sarit, made a fortune off phone lines and billing services for psychic hotlines and racy telephone chat rooms. While the couple was going through a divorce, two brothers -- Daniel and Abner Nicherie -- had befriended Sarit and offered to help her.

According to a government arrest affidavit, Daniel Nicherie used the Shafrirs' own money to fund "approximately 106 lawsuits and 10 bankruptcy filings" to separate them from their wealth. The accused con man reasoned that "the legal system was not equipped to deal with attorneys who lie," the affidavit said.

Nicherie also had worked as a confidential informant for the federal government, according to a former prosecutor.

After the couple reconciled, Sarit told her husband she had heard him talking with agents on a tape Pellicano made on Nicherie's behalf. Shafrir reported that to the FBI. Nicherie later pleaded guilty to hiring Pellicano to wiretap Shafrir and to defrauding the couple of their real estate and business empire, once worth $40 million.

In May 2002, FBI Agent Walker and another agent entered Pellicano's office with a subpoena for various documents and recordings and photos of law enforcement personnel, according to a copy of the subpoena. It's highly unusual for an agent to seek to seize something that allegedly relates to him personally, legal experts said.

Pellicano, in an interview from prison, said Walker was videotaped entering his office, but the video later was seized by the government. As he began to look over the subpoena, Pellicano said, Walker "leaned over and whispered in my ear: 'We understand you've been wiretapping our agents.' "

FBI agents returned three times to Pellicano's office with search warrants seeking audiotapes of law enforcement as well as notebooks, storage disks and computer files. Before the third visit, agents listened to a sample of Walker's voice so they could pick him out on any recording, according to the warrant. They also seized a file labeled "Dale Walker," Pellicano's attorney said last summer in a motion calling on the government to produce the file.

In March 2005, John S. Gordon, Nicherie's lawyer, wrote the government requesting, among other things, information on the alleged tape of Walker's conversation with Shafrir.

Gordon, head of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles from 2001 through 2002, asked an assistant U.S. attorney to turn over evidence including "tape recordings by Pellicano indicating that FBI Agent Dale Walker discussed having government agents investigate, prosecute or intimidate Daniel Nicherie."

Gordon also sought any "tape recordings made by or at the direction of Anthony Pellicano indicating that ... Dale Walker ... [was] compensated or rewarded directly or indirectly by Ami Shafrir or his lawyers."

In a June 2005 letter, the U.S. attorney's office acknowledged Gordon's request for data, but said it would move to have him disqualified from the case because of his previous government service. Gordon quit Nicherie's defense effort.

Within days, the FBI had launched an internal investigation into the bribery accusation. Agents told interview subjects that "the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are taking the allegations very seriously," FBI records show.

The review was headed by Special Agent Jeanne P.A. Schnese, Walker's colleague in the Los Angeles office. The assignment was unusual because the FBI generally asks agents from outside offices to conduct internal probes, three former federal prosecutors said.

In addition to Walker, the FBI interviewed his boss, Brent Braun. Braun categorically denied having anything to do with a bribe, saying the allegations "are so off the wall that it is unbelievable," according to the bureau's report.

Pellicano's lawyers have petitioned the government to return seized audio or video recordings and documents related to Walker, as well as any videotape of Walker's visit to Pellicano's office and the "Dale Walker" folder. To date, prosecutors have not responded to the motions and letters, according to court filings.

chuck.philips@latimes.com

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