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Screening of TV Producer Was Lax

Times Staff Writers

Joseph Medawar was a smooth-talking Hollywood producer with a timely pitch to turn the Department of Homeland Security into a television series. And he seemed to have the juice to make it happen.

His lead actress brainstormed with two influential California congressmen, Christopher Cox and Dana Rohrabacher, as well as House Homeland Security Committee staffers, on how to make the show more realistic.

His film crew shot action scenes at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his son wound up in the show’s trailer.

And Medawar’s political contributions smoothed the way for a photo with President Bush, attendance at invitation-only GOP events and an introduction to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Staples Center skybox.

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The television project was a sham, the FBI alleges, and Medawar was arrested last month on suspicion of perpetrating an elaborate stock fraud that fleeced small investors of $5.5 million. Investigators say he diverted the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle.

If anyone had checked, they would have found that Medawar had a paper trail of business disputes and lawsuits going back 15 years, one of which drew FBI attention. Yet, he pulled off his alleged scam under the noses of top local law enforcement and national security officials.

“How did anybody buy his act?” said acting coach Sal Dano, who attended a meeting two years ago at the Peninsula Hotel to assemble a production team for Medawar’s series.

After watching Medawar introduce some of his associates as retired admirals and generals, Dano said, he couldn’t get out of the meeting fast enough.

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Medawar “reeked of a con man,” Dano said. “Why didn’t they notice what I noticed?”

Rohrabacher, a Huntington Beach Republican who has been interviewed by the FBI about the case, said, “It’s clear in retrospect there were some problems with Mr. Medawar.”

However, Rohrabacher said he was unaware of Medawar’s history of litigation, which he found not to be that unusual for a Hollywood businessman. Likewise, he said he never thought twice about the braggadocio.

“When you’re talking about Hollywood, flash and exaggeration is standard operating procedure,” he said.

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Medawar is in federal custody and unavailable for comment. His defense lawyer and family have said they would have no comment on the case.

The project’s lead actress and co-producer, Alison Heruth-Waterbury, said she is cooperating with authorities but limited her comments on the advice of her attorney.

“This is sickening to me. It’s thrown my life into an upside-down tailspin,” she said. “With all the important people attached to this, I think everyone thought it was legitimate and moving forward.... A lot of people were hurt by it, including me.”

Some of Medawar’s vaunted connections were real, others were inflated. An FBI affidavit says the White House has denied backing Medawar’s project. So has the Homeland Security Department. But one department official recalled conversations last year with Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury.

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“They said they had lots of money for the show ... and it looked like they were going to put something together,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the investigation.

The producer and his partners repeatedly cited Rohrabacher and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca as program backers, the Homeland Security official said, adding that Medawar also dropped one Hollywood name after another.

“I am sure if Louis B. Mayer were alive, he would have mentioned him too,” the official said.

Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff never endorsed the show.

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“If an individual tells the sheriff an idea for something like a movie, a book or a TV series, and he likes the idea, he will say it’s a good idea,” Whitmore said. “As far as I know, that’s as far as the sheriff went with this individual.”

But at least one investor, a Baca supporter, said he put in $20,000 for a stake in Medawar’s production company after attending a Beverly Hills dinner that included a tribute to Baca and a promotion for the show. Baca’s press spokesman said he had no record of the sheriff attending such an event.

In Orange County, Medawar was allowed to use the sheriff’s facilities for a September 2003 video shoot. Jon Fleischman, a spokesman for Carona, said the sheriff knew the filmmakers were taking video footage and received county counsel approval for the shooting. Medawar “came recommended to the department as a legitimate filmmaker” and “apparently misled” members of Congress as well as representatives of federal, state and local law enforcement, Fleischman said.

Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury posed for a picture at a Beverly Hills fundraiser with Asa Hutchinson, who at the time was the Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for border and transportation security.

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Hutchinson said in an interview that he never assisted the project. He also said the production partners told him that then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had given them the OK to use the department name for the show.

Ridge, in a statement, said he never assisted Medawar or his show. “This individual is unknown to me,” Ridge said.

In March 2004, Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury had their photos taken with President Bush during a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Shrine Auditorium.

By then, Rohrabacher was intrigued enough with the project to introduce Medawar to Cox.

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Cox, now head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, met in Washington, D.C., in June 2004 with Heruth-Waterbury, Rohrabacher and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a former FBI agent who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Last week, Cox said he had told the filmmakers that they needed to contact the Homeland Security Department for permission. They were turned down, Cox said, but posted the seal on their website anyway.

Asked whether he felt used by the filmmaker, Cox declined to comment.

“The representation was that these were people from Hollywood who were planning to produce a television show about the Department of Homeland Security,” Cox said. “The federal government, of course, has an interest in seeing that television shows about the government are faithful to reality.”

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Medawar gave Rohrabacher’s campaign $2,000 in 2003. Rohrabacher said the donation did not influence him to help the producer.

Medawar’s biggest contribution -- $21,200 -- went to Schwarzenegger and paved the way for Medawar and Heruth-Waterbury to attend a lavish fundraiser in December 2003 during a Laker game at Staples.

A spokesman for the governor’s campaign said no one could recall Medawar or the actress doing much more than exchanging greetings with Schwarzenegger.

Still, it again allowed Medawar to hobnob with the kind of power people who can make a difference -- in politics and in Hollywood.

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Over the years, several other Hollywood people have alleged that they were duped by Medawar, according to court records.

In one of half a dozen Los Angeles County lawsuits against Medawar, producer Paul Heller alleged in 1992 that his onetime neighbor tricked him into paying $540,000 for a purported stake in a film based on the Elmore Leonard book “Get Shorty.” That project never got off the ground, and a judge later ordered Medawar to repay Heller.

Another suit accused Medawar and associates of stiffing an Italian villa resort and limousine company for $200,000 during a film festival in Milan. A $500,000 judgment was entered in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1996 against half a dozen defendants, including Medawar, who was ordered to pay $20,000, according to the villa’s lawyer, A. Edward Ezor of Pasadena.

Ezor said the FBI asked him years ago for copies of the checks used to pay the hotel and limo bills.

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The case also drew the attention of the California Banking Commission, which found that some of the checks were drawn on a bogus bank that Medawar helped set up, according to a sworn deposition by the villa’s private detective, Nils Grevillius.

“My sense of Medawar is that he is a very smooth, glib guy with superficial connections to political people. He’s slick,” Grevillius said in an interview. “But he isn’t the little sugar cookie he likes to make himself out to be.”

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Times research librarians Robin Mayper, Maloy Moore and Nona Yates contributed to this report.

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