Amid signs that a lawsuit accusing Michael Jackson of sexually molesting a young boy may soon be settled, prosecutors announced Monday that they will not bring charges against the boy's father, whom Jackson and his advisers claimed tried to extort money from the entertainer.
"We've declined to file today criminal charges of attempted extortion," said Michael J. Montagna, a deputy Los Angeles County district attorney who heads that office's organized crime unit. "The evidence does not show that any crime has been committed."
The district attorney's decision, coming after more than five months of investigation, represents a major victory for the boy's family, whose representatives have denied the extortion allegations for months. The decision was criticized by Jackson's former private investigator but praised by the lawyer for the boy's father.
"We're pleased that the district attorney has confirmed my client is innocent of any wrongdoing," said the lawyer, Richard Hirsch. "Now all the parties can focus on the real issues in this matter."
Immediately after the sexual abuse allegations surfaced last summer, private investigator Anthony Pellicano, then employed by Jackson, publicly accused the boy's father and the father's lawyer of trying to extort $20 million from the singer. According to Pellicano, the boy's father went public with the allegations of abuse only after the extortion attempt failed.
Pellicano released two tape recordings to bolster the extortion claim, and Jackson later repeated the accusations. Jackson's advisers lodged a complaint with the Police Department, however, only after The Times reported that one had not been filed.
Montagna cited the Jackson camp's slowness to act on the extortion claim and its willingness to negotiate with the boy's father for several weeks as two reasons why prosecutors did not bring an extortion case. Montagna also said the discussions between Jackson's representatives and Barry K. Rothman, the attorney for the boy's father at that time, appeared to be attempts to settle a possible civil case, not efforts to extort money.
"It's not a crime for attorneys to try to settle a civil action," Montagna said. "The law actually favors trying to settle actions without going to court."
In an interview Monday, Pellicano sharply disputed the argument that the discussions were intended to settle a claim out of court.
"All during the conversations with Barry Rothman, he was stating that 'unless we get what we want, we're going to blow the lid off, we're going to go to the press, we're going to ruin him,' " Pellicano said. "That's a threat. I can't interpret that anyway but a threat."
Pellicano added that neither Rothman nor Gloria Allred, a prominent Los Angeles attorney who briefly represented the boy, filed a lawsuit, which Pellicano suggested was evidence that the conversations were not about settling a civil claim but were an extortion attempt. But the boy's current attorney, Larry R. Feldman, did file such a lawsuit last year and has pursued it aggressively.
The announcement Monday comes as signs appear to point to an imminent resolution of that lawsuit. Sources say lawyers on both sides are in settlement talks and that while they have nearly reached agreement, they continue to discuss a few issues.
Feldman would not take phone calls about the case Monday. His assistant would say only that he is expected to talk to the media today. Howard Weitzman and Johnnie Cochran Jr., Jackson's attorneys, also were unavailable.
After a court hearing Jan. 14, Superior Court Judge David Rothman announced that the attorneys had agreed to halt their public comments. Since then, they have declined to talk about the case, refusing to respond to a deluge of press inquiries.
But sources said Jackson will pay the boy at least $10 million in return for dropping the lawsuit. Estimates from people close to the negotiations range from about $15 million to about $24 million, with some of the money upfront and the rest in a trust fund for the boy.
If a settlement has been finalized by this afternoon, lawyers are expected to announce it at a news conference outside the Santa Monica courthouse, though sources say the attorneys will not disclose the agreement's terms. If no settlement is reached but discussions continue, the lawyers could announce a deal later this week, the sources added.
Even if the civil case is settled, that would not necessarily mean the end of Jackson's legal troubles. The Los Angeles Police Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department have been investigating the sexual abuse allegations raised by the boy since July, and prosecutors from both counties are weighing the possibility of bringing criminal charges.
Settling the civil case would not affect their investigations unless the alleged victim stopped cooperating with authorities. Legal experts say that no such deal would likely be part of the formal civil settlement because it is illegal to obstruct an investigation or to "compound a crime."
Nevertheless, if the boy and his family determined that it was in the child's best interests to put the case behind him now that the lawsuit was resolved, legal analysts predicted that it could doom the criminal investigation. Under California law, children can be forced to testify against their will, but the law does not allow authorities to punish victims of sex crimes who decline to testify.
Although the announcement by the district attorney's office and the reports of an impending settlement in the civil case appeared almost simultaneously, prosecutors said that was a coincidence.
"The rejection would have been issued last week but for the earthquake," Montagna said. "There is no relation."
Pellicano--who no longer works for Jackson but who still fiercely proclaims the entertainer's innocence and opposes any effort to settle the civil case--scoffed at that and suggested that prosecutors and lawyers in the civil case are orchestrating an effort to dismiss all the cases.
"If you believe that," he said of Montagna's comments, "I'll sell you some bayou land."
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