Private investigator Anthony Pellicano allegedly searched confidential criminal databases for incriminating information on a Hungarian model after she asserted a paternity claim against comedian Chris Rock, court records and interviews show.
The disclosure adds the biggest celebrity name thus far to the list of people whom Pellicano purportedly sought to help by intimidating courtroom foes.
The model, Monika Zsibrita, 33, was named in a February indictment as one of numerous victims of Pellicano’s alleged wiretapping and racketeering conspiracy on behalf of A-list Hollywood attorneys and other prominent clients.
But federal authorities have never detailed why Pellicano was interested in Zsibrita or who might have hired him to investigate the model.
Matt Labov, Rock’s spokesman, confirmed Monday that the comedian’s representatives had hired Pellicano after Zsibrita alleged in 1999 that she was pregnant and carrying Rock’s unborn child.
Two subsequent DNA tests indicated Rock was not the child’s father, according to several sources familiar with the paternity claim, which Zsibrita ultimately pursued in court. Rock was separated from his wife when he met Zsibrita. The case was sealed by a private judge and is now concluded.
Labov said that Pellicano, at the time he was retained, had an “excellent reputation” as an investigator and that no one associated with Rock had any idea the private investigator would illegally access police files, as federal authorities have alleged.
“No one from our camp would have ever knowingly entered into an agreement with Pellicano to do anything illegal,” Labov said. “Let me put it like this: When you hire somebody to fix your TV, you don’t necessarily think he’s going to hook you up for free cable.”
According to a grand jury indictment released in February, Pellicano used his connections with a Los Angeles Police Department detective to illegally run a background check on Zsibrita on July 30, 1999.
At that time, the then-26-year-old model was pregnant and attempting to prove that Rock was the father of her child.
Zsibrita, who now owns a computer business in Los Angeles, declined to comment about the paternity case or who was involved. Her current and former attorneys, citing the confidential nature of the proceedings, also have declined to comment about the paternity case.
But in a brief interview, Zsibrita said the government’s indictment only confirmed her suspicions that, years ago, someone had been after her.
“They wiretapped me and they followed me around,” Zsibrita said. “I was afraid. It was very unsettling.”
Though she had told others at the time that she believed she was being watched, Zsibrita said her suspicions were not confirmed until two years ago, when an FBI agent told her that her personal records had been accessed by someone working with Pellicano.
“When I told people about it, nobody believed me,” she recalled. “People think you are crazy.”
Zsibrita, who was raised in a small town in Hungary, comes from a family of landowners and developers, according to Neville Johnson, her current attorney. She arrived in the United States as a 22-year-old student and graduated from the Otis College of Art and Design.
Norm Zada, publisher of Perfect 10, a men’s magazine in which Zsibrita appeared in 1998, recalls her stories about being followed.
“I remember back then that she told me she believed her apartment was broken into,” Zada said.
Back then, Zada recalled, he often arranged Sunday brunches at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. “I’d take a bunch of models there and celebrities would hang around,” said Zada, adding that Zsibrita was among them.
Two former associates of Zsibrita also remember her telling them she was afraid that someone was after her.
“There was a time that Monika believed her house was being watched and her movements were being watched,” said one. “I never entertained the idea” it could be true.
At the time, said the other, “there was nothing else going on in Monika Zsibrita’s life” but the paternity suit.
Paul Barresi, a onetime employee of Pellicano, said in a recent interview that he was assigned by the private eye to investigate the model in 1999.
“He said he was going after this girl and wanted all the dirt I could gather about her,” said Barresi, who worked for Pellicano for nearly a decade. “He told me he was helping out Chris Rock.”
After making a few calls, Barresi said, he told Pellicano he had checked into Zsibrita’s background and found no evidence that she was involved in any criminal behavior.
Another former employee of Pellicano, in a recent interview, described how the private investigator had Zsibrita followed after Barresi left the case.
The former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid becoming part of the ongoing investigation, told The Times that Zsibrita was followed throughout the summer of 2001 and that videos were taken of her then-toddler. “Most of the time he just wanted to do surveillance on them,” the former employee recalled. “That is when we found out she worked [as a model] for Perfect 10" magazine.
Because paternity cases are confidential, records in the matter were not publicly available. The civil court index in Los Angeles does not include any reference to the case. But interviews show Rock had several lawyers working for him.
One divorce attorney, Robert Clayton, confirmed that he had been retained as a lawyer for Rock “some time ago” but he was prevented from discussing the nature of the case because of a confidentiality agreement. Clayton also said he had never hired Pellicano in a case.
Entertainment lawyer Stephen Barnes also said he has represented Rock. But he declined to comment about the paternity case or any involvement by Pellicano.
Robert Nachshin, another divorce attorney who represented Rock, did not return phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment about working for Rock during the time of the paternity case.
Meanwhile, Johnson and other attorneys representing Zsibrita described further legal action they are planning on her behalf.
As early as today they plan to file a claim against the city of Los Angeles, alleging that the Police Department and Sgt. Mark Arneson, one of Pellicano’s co-defendants, violated Zsibrita’s civil rights because her confidential records were accessed and turned over to the private eye and perhaps others. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
“She is very upset to learn that her privacy was violated in various ways,” Johnson said.