A tearful Erin Brockovich testified Thursday that she was incensed to learn that her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend were threatening to tell the tabloids that she neglected her three children.
"It has been a difficult task raising children with an absent father and no child support," the heroine of the movie bearing her name said in court. "The one thing I have been is a good mom to my kids."
Brockovich testified in the extortion and conspiracy case of Century City attorney John Reiner, who represented her ex-husband, Shawn Brown, and ex-boyfriend, Jorg Halaby. Prosecutors maintain that Reiner and his clients tried to blackmail Brockovich and her boss, lawyer Ed Masry, for $310,000 in exchange for not telling the press that she was a bad mother and that they had a sexual relationship.
Masry and Brockovich have denied having an affair.
Defense attorneys contend that Reiner thought he was involved in a legitimate business deal and that his clients intended to get money from Universal Studios, not Masry and Brockovich. They also have suggested that Brown never meant to attack his ex-wife's character, but rather wanted to set the record straight that he was a good father.
Brockovich, 40, became a household name last year after movie audiences began packing theaters to see the blockbuster movie about her. The film, which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, tells the story of a divorced mother who helps secure a $333-million settlement against PG&E; for polluting ground water.
Brockovich, Masry and Halaby were portrayed in the movie and received money for their rights. In their contracts, they agreed not to say anything derogatory about the film. Brown did not have a contract and was angry that he was depicted in the movie as a deadbeat dad.
"He was very upset," Masry testified before Brockovich took the stand. "Jorg got money, Erin got money, I got money and he didn't get any. There's no question Shawn wanted money from the studio."
Reiner contacted Universal to ask them to give Brown a contract, but the studio attorney said he was not interested because Brown was not a character in the film and was not referred to by name.
Brockovich, who divorced Brown in the late 1980s, said the mention of her ex-husband in the film as "useless" was accurate. She testified that he had served time in prison twice, had a drinking problem and rarely paid child support. Brockovich had sole custody of her children and said she closely monitored their visits with Brown.
Brockovich also testified she was worried that Brown and Halaby were dragging her children into the demand for money. At one point, Brockovich testified, she learned that Brown had told their daughter that Brockovich only got ahead by sleeping with Masry.
"I was terrified," she testified, that her children "were being used as pawns."
Defense attorneys questioned Brockovich about a taped conversation she had with Brown, during which he denied wanting to tell the tabloids that she had an affair. She responded that he denied it during that conversation but didn't hesitate to say it at other times.
"Mr. Brown made it abundantly clear that he had been approached by Inside Edition for $50,000 and if I didn't retract the fact that I had eaten macaroni and cheese (because of a lack of money) . . . he was gonna tell the press I was a poor mother," she told jurors.
Reiner, Brown and Halaby were arrested in a sting operation April 26, weeks after the movie's release. Reiner first called Masry on April 11, and Masry and Brockovich decided that night they weren't going to pay the money.
"We hadn't done anything wrong," Brockovich said in court. "We decided we would stand up and we would fight back."
Prosecutors later dropped charges against Brown and Halaby without explanation. Testimony in Reiner's case is scheduled to continue this morning.