A paparazzo who covers the Hollywood celebrity scene was arrested by the FBI on Thursday on charges of illegally intercepting a cellular phone conversation between actor Tom Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, and then peddling the information to two tabloids.
Eric Ford, 27, of Studio City was accused of disclosing the contents of the conversation, purportedly a lovers spat, to representatives of the Globe and the News of the World.
He was able to monitor the celebrity couple's exchange by using a radio scanner modified to intercept cellular phone calls, authorities said.
Federal law forbids intercepting any such communication--whether over conventional phone lines, cellular phones or the Internet--without a court order.
The law also bars disclosure of any intercepted conversation and elevates the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony when the interception is done for commercial gain.
Indicted on three felony counts, Ford appeared Thursday before a Los Angeles federal magistrate who freed him on bond, pending arraignment next Monday. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to 15 years.
In a small irony, Ford tried to shield his face from a courtroom artist as he waited to appear before the magistrate.
According to the indictment, he intercepted a conversation between Cruise and Kidman on Feb. 5. Kidman was talking to Cruise from her car phone just after leaving the set of the movie "Practical Magic." The exchange was also recorded.
About six weeks later, the indictment said, Ford pitched the story to the News of the World, a London-based weekly with a 4.6-million circulation. Sources said he allowed a tabloid representative to listen to the recording.
A deal with News of the World apparently fell through, the U.S. attorney's office said, but on June 12 Ford sold the story to the Globe for an undisclosed amount.
Federal prosecutor Wendy Clendening said the government has no plans "at this time" to charge the Globe with any criminal misconduct. The Boca Raton, Fla.-based tabloid, which has a circulation of 960,000, issued a terse response, saying: "The Globe did nothing illegal or inappropriate in putting together this story."
The article, published June 30, was headlined, "Is Tom Cruise's Marriage Hanging by a Thread?"
It purports to give a "blow-by-blow" account of Cruise and Kidman arguing over their relationship, with Kidman complaining that she feels ignored and Cruise upset over her failure to show up for a romantic evening he had planned.
Although Kidman is represented as saying at one point that their marriage is in jeopardy, the article adds that "it's clear that the people on the tape love each other very much and are committed to working out their problems."
In the article, the Globe says that its information about the conversation came from unidentified "insiders" or "sources" who professed to have heard the tape. Ford was not identified as a source.
The publication also quoted the couple's lawyer, Bertram Fields, denouncing the tape recording as "manipulated and doctored."
Reached by The Times on Thursday, Fields said he brought the case to the FBI and U.S. attorney's office. "They are to be congratulated for their investigation of this matter," he added.
As Hollywood celebrities, he said, Cruise and Kidman have endured "more than their share of problems with paparazzi. They have been hassled driving their kids to school. That frightens them very much."
In October, Cruise and Kidman won a lawsuit against London's Express on Sunday over a story that said their marriage was a sham to hide the fact that Cruise was gay. The publication paid $167,000 in damages, picked up legal fees totaling about $250,000 and apologized publicly, saying the story was "entirely false."
Kidman spoke about the bogus story and her family's loss of privacy in a Newsweek cover story published this week.
"You see nobody, and then five days later you see pictures of you and the kids. You had no idea there was somebody behind a tree. That has an effect on you. You have a feeling of always being watched."
Also: "We had to sue those papers in Britain. Isabella [their daughter] has to go to school now. Kids can be mean. I don't want her coming home and saying, 'Mommy, are you and Daddy gay?' So you do have to stand up against it."