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DIVORCE

Times Staff Writers

WHEN Hollywood publicist Michael Sands tried to hire celebrity divorce lawyer Dennis Wasser in a child custody case, he got a stern brushoff from the silver-haired, opera-loving attorney, best known for handling the breakups of such Hollywood luminaries as Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg and J. Lo. “You don’t need an army to destroy an ant,” Sands recalled Wasser telling him.

Now this urbane family law specialist may find himself in the uncomfortable position of having to marshal his own legal army, as he’s become a “person of interest” in the ongoing federal investigation of Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano. Pellicano has been indicted in an elaborate wiretapping and witness intimidation racket that federal prosecutors say illegally investigated such Hollywood figures as Garry Shandling, Sylvester Stallone and CAA honchos Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane. Attorney Terry N. Christensen has also been indicted in the probe, and another big-time lawyer has acknowledged being in the investigators’ headlights as well -- celebrity litigator Bertram Fields, who used to refer all sorts of clients, including Cruise, to Wasser. News that Wasser could be embroiled in the Pellicano investigation has left the small, clubby world of high-end divorce lawyers reeling. There are only a few lawyers who handle the town’s mega-cases, and they generally maintain cordial relations in part because they face off so often, and trust between counsels can benefit warring spouses. These lawyers charge up to $850 an hour, and they can earn millions when the divorce wrangling lasts for years.

Among his colleagues, the Century City-based Wasser is known for speaking softly but enjoying the limelight. Like the late palimony king Marvin Mitchelson, the 63-year-old Wasser has been known to flaunt his celebrity clientele like a rap star wears bling. Emerging from court after a rare public session in Cruise’s divorce from Nicole Kidman, Wasser stopped to give sound bites for the cameras, while Kidman’s attorney, Sorrell Trope, headed for the door.

In the February 2003 issue of W, the women’s fashion magazine, the Brooklyn-born, USC-educated Wasser flashed a scrapbook filled with memorabilia about his celebrity clients. He discussed the finer points of their private jets, and boasted how MGM mogul Kirk Kerkorian flew him and his family to Vegas for his 60th birthday, after he beat back the demands of Kerkorian’s ex-wife for more child support. Wasser’s photogenic 37-year-old daughter, Laura, is one of his closest associates and handles the marital woes of young celebs like Jessica Simpson and Angelina Jolie. The pair even consulted on the Jim Carrey comedy “Liar, Liar,” about a divorce lawyer whose life is turned topsy-turvy when his son makes a birthday wish that his dad stop lying for 24 hours. The movie’s producer, Brian Grazer, had also hired the Wasser firm to handle a request for more child support from his ex-wife.

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Wasser declined comment for this article, and through his lawyers has denied any wrongdoing. A dozen top divorce lawyers contacted by The Times professed surprise that he would come up in the probe. “I can’t believe he had any part of that,” said lawyer and friend Norman Oberstein, who faced Wasser in the Sondra Locke-Clint Eastwood palimony case, and counts himself as a friend. “He’s a very straight-shooter.”

Irwin Buter, an attorney and Wasser friend of 25 years, added, “He would never throw me a curveball but he may throw me a fastball because he’s a good lawyer. I’d take his word to the bank.”

Trope said he has gone up against Wasser a number of times. “Is he the most feared lawyer in town in divorce work? Absolutely not. His style is very low-key. His courtroom style is very matter of fact, no histrionics.” Trope said that Wasser likes to talk in a low whisper. “He’s the kind of person who sits down and says, ‘Now, we’re all friends. Can’t we get this worked out?’ He’s normally not interested in what they call going to the mat.”

There’s been ongoing speculation in the media about whether Pellicano became involved in Cruise vs. Kidman. The breakup of the two superstars titillated the public and the tabloids, and the specter of wiretapping was so great that Kidman’s New York attorney, William Beslow, brought in security specialist Richard Di Sabatino to conduct what he described as “counter surveillance.”

“It’s just a precautionary measure whenever you have a divorce proceeding in the limelight like her case,” explained Di Sabatino, who said he outfitted Kidman’s phones with “encryption devices in case anybody who was listening to the phone calls wouldn’t be able to hear unless they were a party of the conversation.”

Neither Di Sabatino, nor Kidman’s attorneys, Trope in L.A. and Beslow of New York, would comment on what they were protecting against. According to one well-placed source, the FBI has made at least two attempts to interview Cruise. More recently, according to another source, they’ve contacted Kidman about an interview. There was no comment from either actor or from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

It is the Kerkorian child support case that appears to have prompted federal authorities’ interest in Wasser, who is the name partner at Wasser, Cooperman & Carter.

In 2002, Lisa Bonder Kerkorian sued her ex-husband, asking for $320,000 a month in child support for her 4-year-old daughter Kira, which included $144,000 a month for travel, $14,000 for parties and play dates, $5,900 monthly to eat out and $436 for the care of her pet bunny. The 88-year-old Kerkorian retorted in a deposition, describing how Bonder Kerkorian, a former tennis pro, pressured him into marrying her so her daughter could carry his name. Kerkorian testified about how Bonder-Kerkorian faked a DNA test to pass Kira off as his biological daughter; another filing said Kerkorian had his security guard fish dental floss out of the garbage can of playboy producer Steve Bing, to prove that Bing was the real father. Kira Kerkorian’s biological heritage turned out to be legally irrelevant to the case, but it made for salacious reading. Bing in turn sued Kerkorian for invasion of privacy, but the case quickly settled.

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According to the indictment, beginning in March of that year, Kerkorian’s longtime attorney Christensen allegedly paid Pellicano $100,000 to wiretap Lisa Bonder Kerkorian and her attorney. Christensen, indicted Feb. 21, has pleaded not guilty.

The Christensen indictment said an unnamed attorney had initially enlisted Pellicano and told him to contact Christensen about “going after” Lisa Bonder Kerkorian’s attorney, Stephen Kolodny. Kolodny had referred Christensen to the state bar for disciplinary action for contacting Bonder Kerkorian without her attorney being present.

Attorneys for some who’ve been questioned by authorities in the Pellicano investigation have told The Times that the unnamed lawyer is Wasser, who knew Christensen well and initially represented him in his own acrimonious divorce. Attorneys for Wasser have said he has not committed any crime.

“He is probably the best known and best respected divorce lawyer in Los Angeles,” said his attorney, Vincent Marella, acknowledging that Wasser is a “person of interest” to the government in the investigation. “There is no allegation as to Mr. Wasser relating to any illegal or even improper behavior. Nor do we think there can be based on facts as we know them.”

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At the end of the case, Lisa Bonder Kerkorian only succeeded in getting her child support raised a measly $316 a month to $50,316 -- a victory for Wasser. She immediately fired her lawyer, Kolodny.

“I think she was frustrated as I was about the end result,” Kolodny said recently. “Dennis is a good lawyer. He got good results. Perhaps I know why.” If Kolodny sounds bitter, he has extra reason -- at the time the unnamed attorney allegedly advocated hiring Pellicano to “go after” him, Wasser was putatively a close friend, close enough that the attorneys used to vacation together.

The Wasser firm’s contact with Pellicano dates back at least to the 1997 divorce of the Herbalife mogul Mark Hughes, who died in 2000. Wasser and his firm represented Hughes’ ex-wife, Suzan, a former Miss Petite USA, who said she hired Pellicano to “do some work for me for a short period of time and nothing illegal -- not that I know of. I wanted him to find something out for me. He told me, and that was the end of that.” She declined to elaborate on what Pellicano actually dug up, except to say it was “something you have a gut feeling about. You know certain things as a woman and you want to find out.”

According to David Rosenson, Wasser’s former law partner who retired five years ago, Pellicano was involved in the Hughes case “in a very, very tangential way. To my knowledge, he didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t invite him in. That was Suzan’s doing. I guess [Suzan] felt comfortable with him and she was a friend of his. It was a package deal. When you want to talk to the client, you have to talk to his or her aide. He was her aide. Whether he came to her aid, I’m not sure. He wasn’t a fixture at our firm. I barely knew the guy.” (According to the Pellicano indictment, the private eye illegally accessed the records of Mark Hughes, as well as those of his fourth wife, one-time Hawaiian Tropic model Darcy LaPier Hughes, and a number of business associates, although mostly after the divorce.)

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Pellicano “assisted in resolving the case,” said attorney Patricia Phillips, who represented Hughes. “I thought he did a very creditable job.”

Despite the lore about private eyes dogging faithless spouses, Phillips said that investigators figure in only a small number of divorce cases in California, which is a no-fault divorce state. According to several prominent divorce attorneys, the kind of investigator typically hired is one who specializes in accounting, one who knows how to find hidden assets.

And sometimes there are special cases. John Nazarian is a former police officer turned private investigator who’s been hired by a number of prominent divorce attorneys.

“When we’re involved with a big high-profile case, everything is fair game,” he said. “About a week ago, I went to Malibu in the middle of the night and grabbed someone’s garbage can, that was full of stuff that had been shredded.” Nazarian assembled a team of six employees to laboriously put everything back together, and “got naked pictures of our subject. Was that fun? After we did it, it was fun. It’s hilarious. Whatever it takes to get the goods, the rich and famous always want their pound of flesh.”

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Wasser first shot to fame in the early 1980s for defending tennis star Billie Jean King in a “galimony” case filed by a girlfriend who wanted support for life and the Malibu beach house. Wasser got the girlfriend evicted from the house and the case dismissed. His who’s who of other clients ranges from Alec Baldwin to Stevie Wonder.

When Eastwood was sued for palimony by his longtime girlfriend and frequent costar Locke, Wasser and lead attorney Robert King settled the case by arranging for Locke to get a first-look production deal at Warner Bros., the studio that made most of Eastwood’s films. In a subsequent case against Eastwood, Locke said the deal was a sham, and on the eve of what looked like a jury victory for the actress, she settled with her former lover.

Wasser, along with Christensen’s firm, is now representing billionaire supermarket magnate Ron Burkle in litigation relating to his divorce. Ronald Anteau, Kolodny’s partner who has handled high-profile divorces involving former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and actors Robert De Niro, Kirstie Alley and Christian Slater, said the world of high-stakes divorce is one in which well-heeled clients expect results when they come knocking.

“We are not mediators,” he said. “The phrase is, ‘we’re meat eaters.’ If you treat us nice, we treat you nice. If you don’t, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

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In a 2004 interview with an English newspaper, Wasser himself professed chagrin at some of the nasty behavior he has seen in divorce court. “My patience gets tested all the time by some of the behavior I come across,” said Wasser. “How do I deal with it? By taking deep breaths.”


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