The Man Behind the Money


Edward L. Masry arrived on the Ventura County political scene last year in his usual, flamboyant style: with his fists balled up and his checkbook open.

After catching a few minutes of a fiery Thousand Oaks City Council meeting on television, Masry broke off $50,000 to help Elois Zeanah--a woman he had never met and whose name he could not pronounce--fight off an expensive recall drive.

When he gave $15,000 last week to Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, a group planning a countywide farmland preservation initiative this fall, the wealthy Thousand Oaks resident made clear his local largess was no fluke.


Yet the 65-year-old attorney, who has filed two lawsuits alleging contamination around Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory, said he does not understand why he has made such a name for himself in the community.

By his own estimate, his Westlake Village-based law firm, Masry & Vititoe, contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats last year alone, and received hardly a column inch of news coverage.

Not that Masry shuns the spotlight.

In a colorful, three-decade legal career in which he has represented NFL stars Merlin Olsen and Roman Gabriel, taken on the state attorney general over the rights of religious cults, and even wound up with a piece of the rock group Steppenwolf after a dispute among band members, Masry has continuously made waves--particularly for longshot causes he believed in.

Last year, Masry & Vititoe was one of three law firms that won a $333-million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the world’s largest publicly owned utility, after alleging that 648 residents of rural Hinckley, Calif., had been unknowingly drinking and bathing in carcinogens for years.

The case, which had nearly bankrupted Masry & Vititoe, eventually resulted in a check larger than $40 million for the firm, and helped give Masry the Consumer Advocate of the Year award from the Consumer Attorneys of California.

Indeed, if there is any constant theme in Masry’s life as a lawyer--according to friends, relatives, associates and former clients--it is his willingness to champion the underdog.


“He is a very compassionate man, and he never says no to a call for help,” said former Lt. Gov. and U.S. Rep. Mervyn Dymally, whom Masry has represented for three decades. “If a constituent came to me and asked me for assistance because he had no money, the first person I went to was Ed Masry.”

But some people on the other side of the county political battles wonder whether he truly understands the issues and people his money is supporting--and that they might be underdogs for a reason.

“He has every right to put his money where he sees fit,” said Peter J. Turpel, former spokesman for recall group Yes! Remove Elois Zeanah. “Whether he knows what he is doing and what his money is going to, I have no idea. I have some real questions about that. I don’t know what his motives are.”

Masry acknowledged he knows little about Thousand Oaks politics, but said his gut instinct told him that Zeanah was on the right side of the issue, while the recall’s chief benefactor, Domino’s Pizza entrepreneur Jill Lederer, had ulterior motives.


“I didn’t know anything about Thousand Oaks, but this [recall] just didn’t pass the smell test,” Masry said. “Why would some pizza woman spend all that money?”

On the other hand, he said his involvement in farmland preservation efforts stems from watching the San Fernando Valley--where he farmed a small plot as a teenager--turn from agricultural jewel to concrete labyrinth.


The planned SOAR measure would take the power to rezone farmland away from politicians and give it to voters. And Masry believes citizens would do a much more responsible job of protecting agricultural land.

“I’d like to see this community retain its rural values and not turn into another San Fernando Valley,” he said. “Every politician in the Valley talked the talk, but once they got into office, they did something else.”

The youngest of four children, Masry was born in New Jersey in 1932 to Luis and Louise Masry. His father, who was Syrian, had met his mother in France and the two came to America, starting a silk apparel business.


The family enjoyed a comfortable life in Patterson, N.J., but when FDR lifted the silk tariffs in the mid-1930s, the family business was all but destroyed, Masry said. In 1940, Masry’s parents decided to make a new start in California, packed up their two Fords and headed west.

They first settled in Venice, but because one of the children suffered from asthma, a doctor recommended they move to the San Fernando Valley.

There the family bought a small bungalow on 20 acres at the intersection of Sherman Way and Hayvenhurst Avenue at what is now the site of Van Nuys Airport.


“You have no idea how beautiful the San Fernando Valley was at that point,” Masry said. “It was a little garden of Eden.”

The bungalow was too small to house the entire family, so for about three years, Masry slept in an adjacent tent. He would sometimes share his space with stragglers who lacked even those meager accommodations, his sister, Jeanette Butler, recalled.

“That was his sleeping quarters,” Butler said. “Eddie never complained about things like that, because he knew a lot of people didn’t have it any better.”


Eventually, Masry’s father leased a building in Ocean Park and began renting the apartments, and the family moved to Santa Monica. Everyone, that is, but Masry, who stayed behind in the bungalow to take care of some crops on the family property and work on nearby chicken farms.

Masry attended Van Nuys High School, lettering in track and graduating in 1950. He then studied at Los Angeles Valley College, graduating in 1952. He tried to obtain a scholarship to UCLA, but failed, so he decided to join the Army instead.

He served two years in France before returning to California, where he took courses at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA and USC. Although he never received a bachelor’s degree, Masry said he was accepted to Loyola Law School on an exemption due to high placement scores.


He was attracted to the legal profession, he concedes, largely due to Hollywood depictions of attorneys and the prospects of wealth the movies suggested. But he also thought he could do some good.

Besides, he said, he had scored a D-minus in a zoology course, which led him to conclude that his original dream--to become a doctor--was probably out of reach.

After landing on academic probation his first year, Masry said, he got his act together and eventually graduated in good standing in 1960. He passed the bar exam in 1961 and immediately began working with Earnest Williams, whom he served as a clerk in law school.


Like many young attorneys, Masry said he worked on any cases he could get in his early years, representing “strippers, prostitutes and pimps,” and whoever else needed a criminal defense attorney. One of his first highly publicized cases--that of a stripper who opened a topless bar in Santa Monica, only to be threatened with arrest by police--sparked his interest in 1st Amendment law, he said.

“Her name was Lucky Wynn,” Masry recalled with a chuckle. “To make a long story short, police said that if she did it, they would arrest her. She took her shirt off, and they arrested her.”

Masry eventually won the case on constitutional grounds, and his career began to take off.

In the late 1960s, an accountant for one of the Los Angeles Rams approached Masry and said players needed better representation, so Masry--a passionate football fan--began working as an agent. He soon had about a dozen clients, mainly from the Rams, including Olsen, a hall of famer.


Masry threw the NFL brass into a tizzy in 1971 when he discovered a flaw in the boilerplate standard players contract that would have allowed scores of players to declare themselves free agents.


“A Los Angeles lawyer, Ed Masry, dropped a bomb on the National Football League Friday,” read the opening paragraph of a Times article on the incident.

Not wanting to “raise hell” around the league, however, Masry refused to let his fellow attorneys--many of whom had doubtless tried to find similar flaws for their clients--in on his discovery. He struck a deal with then-football Commissioner Pete Rozelle allowing his client, Olsen’s younger brother Phil, to be declared a free agent, but kept his mouth shut.

After the Watts riots, Masry spent a brief period in South Central Los Angeles doing pro bono work.

“I didn’t accomplish anything,” he said. “It was like trying to stem the tide of the Atlantic.”

He also argued a case on behalf of some of the members of Steppenwolf, perhaps best known for the anthem “Born to be Wild.” The band members wanted to continue under the Steppenwolf name despite the objections of the departing lead singer.


Masry took the case on a contingency basis and wound up owning a piece of the band after winning a protracted legal battle. But the original band was soon dwarfed by lead singer John Kay’s new group, dubbed John Kay & Steppenwolf.

“I don’t really care about their music much,” Masry said. “But my kids thought it was really neat.”

In the late 1970s, Masry decided to devote more of his time to 1st Amendment causes, and began representing a variety of religious organizations, including Morningland.

Considered a cult by many, Morningland’s members espoused a doctrine dealing with telepathy, astrology and mysticism, and believed founder Donato Sperato awaited them in a spaceship hovering the Earth.

About the same time, Masry also began representing the church of controversial television evangelist Gene Scott. When agents for the state attorney general’s office handed him an order demanding all the church’s financial records under an existing law, Scott and Masry burned the order on television.

Scott preached on television against what he and Masry considered to be a flagrant abuse of government power and religious freedom--the order requested records on every dime all the way down to collection plate receipts--and Scott began organizing a sit-in with other religious groups.



Initially, only the Church of Scientology and other unconventional faiths joined the effort. But later, so did mainstream religious groups. The public pressure eventually resulted in the Petris Bill, which further affirmed the rights of nonprofit religious corporations.

“It was quite a time,” recalled Heber Jetzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International and a longtime Masry friend. “Ed was one of the first people in California to call attention to a law that was basically placing churches in receivership. He felt very strongly about the issue of religious freedom, and he took people on. He was a real character.”

In 1978, Masry, his old friend Dymally and Morningland became embroiled in a complex scandal that nearly destroyed Masry--and which he still considers something of a Kafkaesque experience.

Masry was initially charged by the attorney general’s office, along with Morningland leader Sri Patricia Sperato, of attempting to bribe Dymally, then lieutenant governor.


Masry was acquitted of the bribery charge, and a separate charge of conspiracy to bribe an executive officer of the state was dismissed. But he was convicted in San Diego County in 1981 of grand theft under false pretenses for taking $10,000 from Morningland for purposes other than what he had said.

The conviction was later overturned due to juror misconduct, however, and a long second trial, in which Masry represented himself, ended in 1987 with a hung jury.


Senior Deputy Atty. Gen. John Gordnier, who spearheaded most of the cases against Masry, did not respond to a request for comment.

After the hung jury, Masry vowed to uncover what he contends was a witch hunt by Attorneys General Evelle Younger and George Deukmejian to get him and Dymally. He obtained permission to depose then-Gov. Deukmejian.

But Masry was soon diagnosed with colon cancer, and his doctors and family urged him to drop the matter due to his deteriorating health.

“I was worried about him,” said his second wife, 55-year-old Joette Masry. “He had been through so much. I think--this brings back a lot of unpleasant memories--that he needed to take it easy for a while.”

Masry’s health problems slowed his legal work for the better part of a decade.

But about 1992, he began to take on a new legal challenge: “toxic torts,” or cases involving allegations of toxic contamination.

Masry & Vititoe now employs about 50 people--including its own hazardous materials team, complete with four-wheel-drive vehicles and sophisticated monitoring equipment to conduct contamination studies independently of the government or the corporations they take on in court.


The firm still handles numerous kinds of legal issues, but focuses on personal injury, entertainment law and toxic torts.

Last year, he filed two suits alleging that decades of rocket and nuclear testing at the Santa Susana Field Lab outside Simi Valley tainted the ground water and harmed the health and property of residents nearby.

The firm is also involved in similar suits against aviation giants McDonnell Douglas in Sacramento and Lockheed Martin in Redlands.


James Vititoe first met Masry at a Rams game while he was a student at Southwestern Law School in the 1970s, and went to work for him shortly afterward, becoming his partner in the mid-1980s.

“He ended up being my mentor, my best friend and my father all in one,” Vititoe, 51, said from his corner office in the firm’s newly built headquarters.

Masry’s zeal for the law is as strong as ever, Vititoe said, judging from the voluminous legal texts he is always sharing with his colleagues as noteworthy reading material.


And now he has taken on a new pupil: his eldest daughter.

Louanne Masry Weeks, 32, recently graduated from Whittier Law School and turned down several job offers to watch dad at work. He always wanted her to become a lawyer, she said, but she initially became a sports television producer instead.

Despite his busy legal career, her father often visited her, along with her sister, Nicole, and her brother, Louis, after he divorced their mother, Jacqueline A. Masry, in 1975.

He also wanted her to stick around the area--and when she expressed interest in going to New York University instead of nearby UCLA, he was not above using a little subterfuge to change her mind.


In a story they can both laugh about today, Masry took his daughter on a personal taxi tour of New York City. Noticing there happened to be a city garbage strike at the time, Masry conspired with the driver to show his daughter the smelliest, most unpleasant corners of the Big Apple.

It worked, and she attended UCLA instead. Her dad’s ploy might have seemed sneaky, she said, but his motives were honest, a trait she believes he exhibits in all phases of his life.

“He is really, honestly, the most generous person,” she said. “In this profession, where you often have to be aggressive and the media ends up portraying you as greedy, it’s nice to know somebody like him.”