Ovitz tells of hiring Pellicano
Opening a rare window on the inner angst of Hollywood, onetime uber-agent Michael Ovitz testified Wednesday that he hired private eye Anthony Pellicano to get embarrassing information on two entertainment reporters who were writing negative stories about him.
An unrepentant Ovitz said he went to Pellicano because he was convinced that two of his Hollywood rivals -- Universal Studios chief Ron Meyer and DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen -- were feeding information to the reporters.
Prosecutors allege that Pellicano wiretapped, harassed and obtained confidential information about one of the reporters, and her complaint to authorities became the flash point of a five-year scandal that has fascinated Hollywood, culminating in his federal trial.
“It was an extraordinarily difficult time for me and the company,” said a bespectacled Ovitz, testifying in Pellicano’s trial on wiretapping and racketeering charges. “We were in a consistent state of negative press, fueled by rumor and innuendo.”
Ovitz testified that he gave Pellicano $75,000 in cash. Pellicano gave his client the code name “Gaspar” to use when he called, Ovitz recalled.
Ovitz was followed to the stand -- and nearly crossed paths in the court hallway with -- former journalist Anita Busch, the co-author of the stories Ovitz testified were making it “more than difficult” to sell his beleaguered Artists Management Group. Busch, in tears, testified that she was intimidated and nearly run down by a speeding car after those stories appeared.
The government alleges that Pellicano, on behalf of Ovitz, also obtained confidential police and Department of Motor Vehicles records on Bernard Weinraub, the former New York Times reporter who partnered with Busch on some of the Ovitz stories.
“Did you know he was doing anything illegal?” asked attorney Chad Hummel, who represents one of Pellicano’s co-defendants.
“I assumed that whatever he did, he did legally. And I would never tell him to do anything illegal,” said Ovitz, echoing the denials he has made since he was first questioned by the FBI several years ago. Ovitz has not been charged in the case.
Ovitz co-founded Creative Artists Agency, one of the industry’s most influential talent groups, but had left the agency for a disastrous turn as head of Disney before starting Artists Management Group in 1999. The business consisted of a film unit, a television production unit and an artists management division.
Two years later, the television group lost a major potential investor and had to be shut down, Ovitz told a packed courtroom. In addition, the film group was being audited by the parent company of one of its production partners, there were three troubling business lawsuits and Ovitz was trying to sell the company.
As he struggled to make a deal, Ovitz chafed at several 2002 New York Times stories by Busch and Weinraub that essentially wrote him off, despite his former status as the most powerful man in Hollywood.
“All I wanted was a graceful exit from the company,” Ovitz said. “It was hard to function in the middle of these articles.”
As was his habit with clients, Pellicano secretly taped a phone conversation with Ovitz. The tape was played in court.
“I need advice,” Ovitz is heard saying as he requests a meeting with the detective. Later in the discussion, he added, “This is the single most complex situation imaginable.”
“I may have exaggerated in that phone call,” Ovitz said on the stand. “But I reached out because I wanted information.”
On whom? Hummel asked Ovitz repeatedly on cross-examination.
Ovitz said he thought Pellicano had connections to the people he believed to be the sources of his bad press: Meyer, who had been his partner at CAA, and Geffen.
“I wanted to know when I was going to be ambushed. I wanted to know when the next shoe was going to drop,” Ovitz testified. “He told me I had a huge problem with Ron Meyer. I told him I would pay him whatever he wanted if he could solve that problem.”
Far from sounding chagrined about his association with Pellicano, Ovitz sounded like a grateful client. “When a lot of people were abandoning ship, he didn’t,” Ovitz said.
Hummel asked if Pellicano ever delivered any embarrassing disclosures about Weinraub (“No”) or Busch. “No, he was rather dismissive of her,” Ovitz said on the stand.
Busch went on to work for the Los Angeles Times in June 2002. (She works for neither newspaper now.)
On the stand, Busch recounted going outside on the morning of June 20, 2002, to find an upside-down pan on her Audi and a note inside the windshield saying, “Stop.” There was also a hole in the window, she said.
“I was kind of stunned,” she said.
A bomb squad arrived and evacuated her block. Under the pan, the officers found “a fish and a rose. Dead fish,” Busch said. (Asked on the stand if he had hired Pellicano to put a fish on Busch’s car, Ovitz replied, “Absolutely not.”)
The journalist moved out of her home for a period, not returning until early August. On the 16th of that month, she started to cross the street to her rental car when “I heard a motor and there was a car coming toward me with no plates,” Busch testified. “I knew I was in trouble.”
She said she had just jumped into her car when two men in the other car pulled up alongside her.
She said she gripped the steering wheel, paralyzed. One of the men put his fingers to his lips, as if to silence her, then waved at her.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die!’ ” she testified with an anguished sob. “I thought, ‘This is how it ends.’ ” They drove off and she was left unharmed.
Later, under cross-examination, Hummel asked why Busch believed Ovitz and Pellicano (she has lawsuits against both men) were responsible for the threats when at the time she had been investigating actor Steven Seagal’s alleged ties to organized crime.
“Because the evidence points to Mr. Ovitz,” she said.
Pellicano, acting as his own attorney, later subjected Busch to intense cross-examination, leading her once again through the details of her story. (“When did you hear the motor?” “What color was the car?”) At one point, she dropped her face into her hands and cried silently.
He also asked her about another incident. She indicated she was confused over which incident he was citing.
“There were a number of incidents that happened,” she said. “It was a relentless attack -- as you know, Mr. Pellicano.”
“Move to strike,” he said.