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Riding the stormy sea of celebrity law

Times Staff Writers

UP until last month, there didn’t seem to be a TV camera that attorney Debra Opri wouldn’t embrace. The brash, self-professed blue-collar gal from New Jersey had secured a costarring role in the Anna Nicole Smith media circus as the attorney waging war to prove that Larry Birkhead was in fact the father of the now-deceased Playboy bombshell’s baby girl. Her hair long, dark and stick-straight, the 47-year-old hovered perennially at Birkhead’s side, always ready to hit the Larry King-Bill O’Reilly talk-show circuit on his behalf, always filled with snappy quotes for reporters. Before Smith died, Opri routinely chastised the buxom blond from myriad courthouse steps. “Where’s this woman’s decency? Where’s her fairness?” a righteous Opri asked.

Now, her former star client is asking the same question about Opri.

In March the two acrimoniously parted ways, and in June, Birkhead sued her for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. He also filed a complaint with the California Bar Assn., which is investigating. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles C. Lee gave Birkhead his first victory in what is expected to be a long skirmish -- granting his request that $591,250 of Birkhead’s money Opri had sequestered in her attorney-client trust account be transferred into a separate blocked account, that could be touched only by court order.

While it’s unclear how the case will end, Birkhead’s allegations have the potential to seriously dent Opri’s once-promising career as the next Greta Van Susteren or Nancy Grace, one of those tough-talking, camera-ready legal eagles on call to opine about the day’s courthouse skirmish. To journalist and author Diane Dimond, who first noticed Opri at the second Michael Jackson trial, Opri was at the vanguard of a “disturbing trend of attorneys that began to show up at high-profile trials like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson.” Lawyers, Dimond explains, who essentially show up for the cameras to “get face time.” With law and celebrity increasingly intertwined in a tabloid and 24-hour-news-dominated culture, the matter of Birkhead vs. Opri is more than just a nasty spat. It’s also a revealing excursion into a high-stakes world where punditry and legal representation can collide and where six-figure deals between newsmakers and the media are part of the game.

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Opri got her start in this rarefied corner of the law by working for the late singer James Brown and then the parents of Michael Jackson. She made a splash giving interviews during Jackson’s molestation trial. Her career, her detractors say, is a vivid case study of how lawyers can push their way into the media circus and sometimes profit from their exertions.

Birkhead’s claims raise questions of whether she ran roughshod over her client’s interest in a quest to rack up airtime and legal bills. His suit isn’t her only problem. Opri represented actress Pamela Bach in her legal faceoff in court against her erstwhile husband, “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff. Last month, Bach fired Opri after she lost full custody of her two daughters.

Meanwhile, Hasselhoff’s lawyers have filed a motion in Superior Court to get her financial records to determine the exact sum -- believed by his lawyers to be hundreds of thousands of dollars -- that Bach and/or Opri allegedly received in connection with the sale to the media of the infamous video of a drunken Hasselhoff. Opri denies having anything to do with the video.

She also adamantly disputes Birkhead’s accusations and has brought on Sitrick and Co., the crisis P.R. firm, to help her quell the stirring controversy.

Sitting in the lush backyard of her Santa Monica home, the lawyer is all coiled energy in slacks and a white jacket. “This has been a nightmare,” said a teary-eyed Opri. “It’s not fair, it’s not right.” She believes that Birkhead was behind the leaking of her legal bill to him, which totaled $620,492, and included items such as a lobster barbecue, thousand of dollars’ worth of limo rides and $1,500 a month for her publicist. According to her legal bill placed in the court file, she routinely charged Birkhead about $119 per e-mail, not to mention the over $96,000 she billed him for her time on cellphone calls.

“The bill in and of itself is not outrageous,” she said. “This is a bill he doesn’t want to pay on any level. I never agreed to work pro bono. I don’t work for free,” she said repeatedly, responding to one of Birkhead’s claims. “I just don’t. I can’t afford it.”

His side of the story

FOR his part, Birkhead said he’s paid the Florida and Bahamian attorneys who worked on his case. “Their fees were reasonable. I was not supposed to be charged by [Opri], and she took money she wasn’t supposed to take,” said the photographer in an interview last week in the Valley, accompanied by his lawyer, M.L. Trope. Birkhead characterizes his relationship with Opri as a bad marriage that he’s had trouble shaking.

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Over lunch, Birkhead outlined and detailed many of the allegations made in his court papers, which include three long sworn affidavits from him. Opri disputes almost everything Birkhead claims, but her court affidavit is a one-page document that merely states that he signed a legal retainer with her.

Birkhead said he first heard about Opri when MSNBC reporter Rita Cosby tracked him down in 2006 in a New York hotel room to try to get an interview. Birkhead said he didn’t know Cosby, but as his legal complaint lays out, he claims the reporter told him she knew an attorney -- Opri -- who wanted his case and would do it for free. In an interview, Cosby, who’s had Opri on her show numerous times, said it was Birkhead who solicited her advice about legal representation, and so she mentioned Opri among several names. She had no idea of the financial arrangement between the duo.

According to Birkhead, he’d been contacted by a number of attorneys offering their services pro bono; he’d interviewed others who’d asked for retainers ranging from $40,000 to $100,000. Yet none played on his emotions the way Opri did. Smith was planning to marry attorney Howard K. Stern, and Birkhead says Opri told him he was in danger of losing his child if he didn’t sign up with her immediately. Opri denies saying any such thing.

That night, he appeared on Van Susteren’s show and off camera asked the anchor her opinion of Opri. “He said that Opri was going to charge him nothing because she was going to get a lot of publicity out of it equal to her fee,” Van Susteren recalled. “I said, ‘You can’t beat that.’ ”

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Birkhead flew back to his home in California the next day; by the time his flight was taxiing to the gate, Birkhead said that Opri had called him multiple times. She offered to send a limo for him, but he declined. When he arrived at her office, “she’s walking around like a maniac. She’s pacing,” recalled Birkhead, who asked her if family law was her expertise. She told him she had years of experience.

According to Birkhead, she then proceeded to “take these papers, and like a deck of cards, she flings them on the desk.” She rattled off what they were: a paternity action, a suit against Stern, another against Smith for palimony. Birkhead, who’d lived with Smith, didn’t want to file a palimony claim. She threw in a media agreement that entitled her to 10% of any of his earnings if he sold his story. He told her he wouldn’t write a book or do “anything sleazy.” According to Birkhead, she told him that he was going to be rich and that she’d already lined up agents for him.

Most perplexing for Birkhead was that at least one of the retainer agreements included her fee of $475 an hour. As Birkhead outlined in both an interview and in court papers, Opri allegedly told him to ignore it -- that she was going to work pro bono but that she couldn’t put zero in the fee amount because she wouldn’t be able to initiate an action in California. In his tentative ruling, Judge Lee said Opri broke the California Rules of Professional Conduct because she never advised Birkhead in writing to seek independent professional counsel when signing the media deal with her.

Over the next couple of days, Birkhead signed the contracts. “I was so frazzled with her telling me that if I didn’t sign the papers today, I couldn’t see my daughter. She had all this stuff about Bahamian law where someone could say he’s the father and that could be the end of that. And she said she would do it for free. What else did I have to lose?”

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A couple of days later, Opri called and told him to get on a blue jacket and white shirt, because he’d be making a tape to release to the media. He demurred, but she pressured him and when he got in the car with her, she told him he should try to appear angry that his child had been “stolen.” He refused, but he did get angry -- with Opri -- when five minutes to airtime, he realized, according to the court papers, that he was actually doing an interview with Cosby. He grew angrier still when, as borne out in a transcript, Cosby talked about “explosive” court filings, with “damning” claims against Smith such as she was “taking methadone.” Birkhead immediately recognized information that had come from a sealed court file and, on air, refused to comment.

Later, he asked Opri about it and, according to his legal filings, the lawyer told him that it was “payback” to Cosby for bringing her Birkhead. In person, but not in her court papers, Opri adamantly denies leaking the information.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, and Cosby concurs: “There was never anything she did that was a ‘payback’ or favors. I already had several lengthy discussions with Larry Birkhead prior to that.”

In the interview, Birkhead explained that she often would slip info to reporters so they could ask her about it on air -- upon which she’d then refuse to comment. According to Birkhead, she’d often tell news organization that Birkhead couldn’t appear unless Opri appeared also. Together, they showed up on shows such as “Larry King Live” and “20/20,” the latter for which she billed him $9,500 for her travel time.

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Opri denies that she routinely inserted herself into his media appearances and points to at least two interviews that Birkhead gave solo. Opri added that it was Birkhead who wanted to capitalize on his newfound fame, saying that because of it she arranged a meeting with her agent at IMG, Babette Perry.

To Mark Speer, a security guard who has worked for Opri for free for years, Birkhead and Opri spent much time discussing a media deal Birkhead hoped to land and conferred about Birkhead’s grooming. “ ‘When are you going to shave?’ Debra would ask him,” says Speer. "[Then he’d say] ‘I’m going to shave today so the growth looks good in 2 to 3 days.’ He’d have his hair colored. That was an important issue, when to have it colored.”

According to Birkhead, after Smith’s death, Opri volunteered him to go to the legal wrangling in Florida, where the judge was trying to figure out the disposition of Smith’s body. According to Opri’s legal papers, he was the one who insisted they go. In any event, the hearing turned into a televised media circus, particularly when Opri vitriolically interrogated Stern, Smith’s companion, who was fighting Birkhead for the baby. A fracas occurred when Stern’s lawyer, M. Krista Barth, claimed that Opri had accused Stern of killing Smith.

To some, it made for remarkable television. “Debra is very dramatic and compelling and theatrical, and it was on TV for everyone to see,” recalled Nancy Hass, Birkhead’s Florida attorney, who worked with Opri. TV producer Art Harris, who has known Opri for years, said Opri’s “the media’s lipstick pit bull, sweet-talking one moment, then growling on camera the next.”

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Birkhead said he consulted other lawyers about replacing Opri but became discouraged by the amount of time any new lawyer would need to get up to speed on the case.

One of the most vicious battles, according to Birkhead, came over Opri’s desire to attend Smith’s March 2 funeral in the Bahamas; Birkhead threatened to fire her if she did. Eventually, he says, she wore him down. “I couldn’t argue anymore. I was in a bad place and said, ‘Whatever.’ ”

Right after the funeral, Opri and Birkhead drove to his Bahamian lawyer’s office to sign a contract that Opri’s IMG agent Perry had negotiated with NBC/Universal on Birkhead’s behalf. The conglomerate had agreed to pay him $1.05 million for exclusive interviews and to participate in a series of Bravo specials about Smith, according to a source who saw the contract and multiple press reports, including one by MSNBC. Birkhead did indeed appear in what Bravo promoted as an exclusive special on Anna Nicole Smith in March. NBC declined comment.

Opri and Birkhead were staying in adjoining hotel rooms, and later that same night, Birkhead says he saw Opri in her room with a piece of paper with bank information on it. Birkhead says she told him she was getting his NBC money wired into her bank account. In his suit, he alleges that he specifically told Orpi not to take the money but that she did it anyway.

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According to a declaration filed on Birkhead’s behalf by IMG’s business affairs lawyer, Regan McGorry, Opri directed IMG and NBC to wire the initial payment of $866,250 into Opri’s attorney-client trust fund. There was no written authorization from Birkhead. When Birkhead called IMG to complain and get his money, McGorry asked Opri to wire Birkhead the funds. In her statement, McGorry claimed that Opri refused to relinquish the money until her dispute with Birkhead was resolved.

In court papers filed in June, Opri’s attorneys assert that the money had been put in her attorney-client trust fund with Birkhead’s “knowledge and consent.”

More recently, Opri explained to The Times that she just neglected to get Birkhead’s authorization in writing. “It was last-minute everything. We did not have access to a printer. These were secure documents. You coulda-woulda-shoulda. Monday (morning) quarterbacking is wonderful in hindsight.”

Soon after the money was deposited, Opri sent $200,000 to Birkhead and $75,000 to his Bahamian law firm, Alexiou Knowles.

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Days later, according to his court papers, Birkhead asked for his remaining $591,250, and Opri repeatedly refused. Birkhead claims he then fired her. Opri contends that she quit. On March 29, he received a legal bill from Opri for $620,492.

Opri doesn’t dispute the actual charges, but insists that they need to be understood in context. The two meals for $1,116.16 and $2,467 at the swank Graycliff restaurant in Nassau? She had simply treated Bahamian counsel Birkhead wanted to use to a fancy meal to persuade them to forego their $25,000 retainer to start the case. “Why was I paying for a $500 box of Cuban cigars she took home?” asked Birkhead angrily, who points out that she also took her husband, and had flown him to the Bahamas at Birkhead’s expense.

The $800 spent on a lobster dinner and groceries? That was a thank-you barbecue for the Florida family who’d put her and Birkhead up in their home for over a week, for free. “Where I come from, you don’t just take, you do something,” said Opri.

In her legal case, Opri had claimed that Birkhead’s NBC money was subject to her lien for attorney’s fees, but in his tentative written ruling preceding his final judgment, Judge Lee unequivocally struck that down.

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Her legal background

A graduate of New York University and Whittier Law School, Opri in the recent interview described her practice as 25% family law, 10% criminal law, and the rest civil litigation. Despite her recent foray into high-stakes family law, she is not a certified family law specialist or by her own admission a member of the insular world of L.A.'s celebrity divorce bar. Cary Goldstein, a palimony specialist himself, had Opri as a law clerk and said, “In the right case, Debra could do a great job for her client. I don’t believe her forte is family law.”

While her first celebrity client might have been James Brown, whom she successfully defended in a sexual harassment claim, Opri’s real entree into the media limelight came via the Jacksons. Not Michael Jackson but his parents, Joe and Katherine Jackson. When the King of Pop went on trial for child molestation in 2005, charges of which he was eventually acquitted, Opri said she was hired to let his parents “know what was going on in the courtroom, to explain the law to them.”

How she met them is a matter of some conjecture.

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The parents declined to be interviewed for this story, but Sitrick arranged for a statement from Katherine Jackson, sent by someone who purported to be her assistant. In it, Jackson stated that she met Opri through James Brown and was “extremely pleased” with her services.

But by another account their introduction was far more colorful and occurred in 2004 at the opening-night party for Katherine’s, the West Hollywood restaurant owned by Joe Jackson and named after his wife. According to a person who attended the party, Opri was also there, lingering for more than two hours with the paparazzi outside the restaurant’s VIP room, where the Jackson patriarch and other celebrities such as boxer Mike Tyson had gathered. The source said: “A door opens and out walks Joe Jackson and the second that door opened up, that woman literally leapt into the middle of the crowd, thrust her hand into the air like a clenched-fist ‘60s black-power salute and yelled, ‘Joe Jackson! Joe Jackson! It’s Debra Opri! I represented the Godfather of Soul!’ [Joe] looked completely stunned. She then thrust her [business] card into his hand. Joe took the card.”

Publicist Angel Howansky, who is close to the Jacksons, says she and TV producer Daphne Barak took Opri to meet the Jackson parents after she’d met Opri at a book signing for a book about Michael Jackson. “I saw [Opri] and I said, ‘My God, you just have this confidence that blares out. I would love to introduce you to the family.’ ” A source who works with Barak confirms this account. That day, Howansky says she saw Joe Jackson sign a contract with Opri.

Opri initially declined to explain how she knew the Jacksons, but when faced with the myriad accounts, she said she was initially introduced to Joe Jackson at a Grammy party and met him twice more at Katherine’s.

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Whatever the origins of their relationship, landing the Jackson parents turned out to be a boon to Opri’s career. Given that the actual lawyers who tried and defended Michael Jackson were under a judge’s gag order, Opri had a field day giving interviews.

According to former Court TV reporter Dimond, Opri would arrive at the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., driving a black Mercedes coupe with the personalized license plate reading “Opri” and head straight for the TV cameras. “And she would say some of the most outrageous things. She wasn’t talking about the family. She would start talking about the criminal facts of the case,” said Dimond. According to news accounts, Opri often gave the media pro-Jackson play-by-play accounts of the trial from the courthouse steps and made the TV rounds as a Jackson booster. She told Bill O’Reilly, she was “not in it for the publicity.... I’ve told you I believe Michael Jackson is innocent and I believe he’s a victim.”

Sitting in her backyard, contemplating her recent imbroglios with Birkhead and Hasselhoff, Opri still says she’d love to get a paying gig as a legal analyst. “I would like my time paid for. Every three to four minutes of TV warrants two to three hours of preparation, and that’s two to three hours away from my clients. I go on TV only when I have something to say.”

Even under siege, Opri gives good sound bite. “I happen to consider that my reputation means everything to me, and the fact remains that I have to deal with the realities that now confront me and I will.

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“I am a girl from a hardworking background who worked and paid bills from the day I left home,” she said with gusto. “I am someone who believes the little guy gets stepped on regularly. I believe everybody needs a fair break, and I believe that the handful of people who happen to be in the spotlight who hire me and will continue to hire me, they need a fair break too.”

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

robert.welkos@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Fees Opri billed Birkhead

$119 - Minimum amount charged per e-mail

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$4,500 - Cost of Opri’s publicist

$4,750 - Charge for attending Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral

$96,068 - Charge for talking on her cell phone


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