A top Los Angeles attorney known for his hardball tactics and his association with billionaire Kirk Kerkorian was convicted Friday of conspiring with private eye to the stars Anthony Pellicano to wiretap Kerkorian’s ex-wife.
A federal jury deliberated for one day after a six-week trial before returning guilty verdicts across the board for Pellicano and Century City attorney Terry Christensen, who represented Kerkorian in a bitterly contested 2002 child support battle.
The conviction marks the end of a long legal career for Christensen, a former Marine Corps prosecutor who made his name in Hollywood’s legal world with his dogged, bare-knuckle style of litigation, a reputation he once prized.
“We are tough as we can be, I guess, ruthless,” he told The Times in a 1994 interview. “Sometimes . . . we have to get in the other guy’s face,” he told Business Week magazine in 1989.
But Christensen crossed the line, prosecutors said, when he turned to Pellicano to listen in on the phone conversations of Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, who was asking for $320,000 in monthly child support for her then-4-year-old daughter in a legal battle that grabbed tabloid headlines.
During deliberations, the seven-man, five-woman panel asked to review some of the 34 recordings that Pellicano secretly made of his conversations with Christensen, in which the two men discussed, amid gleeful laughs and profanity, the plight of Bonder Kerkorian and her attorneys.
Prosecutors had argued that those recordings, which were played in their entirety in the trial, showed that the attorney had knowledge of, and was directing, Pellicano’s illegal acts.
Defense attorneys for Christensen said the same conversations proved that no wiretap occurred or, if it did, that their client had no knowledge of it.
They also argued that the recordings might have been altered by Pellicano, who also was working for producer Steve Bing.
Bing later was revealed to be the biological father of Bonder Kerkorian’s child, based on DNA recovered from a discarded piece of dental floss.
The government’s six-year probe into Pellicano’s investigations business, which catered to celebrity clients, kept Hollywood on edge for years as industry players wondered just who would be drawn into the wiretapping scandal.
In the end, Christensen, 67, was the only one to be indicted among a number of marquee entertainment attorneys who used Pellicano’s services.
Prosecutors on Friday called Christensen’s use of Pellicano to gain the upper hand in a court fight “a stain on the entire legal community.”
“We are grateful to the jury for helping to eradicate that stain today,” Assistant U.S. Attys. Daniel Saunders and Kevin Lally said in an e-mail.
Defense attorney Patricia Glaser, a longtime colleague of Christensen and a partner at his firm, said there were “tons of issues” to be raised on appeal.
“We don’t agree with the jury,” she said. “We’ll fight this all the way.”
Pellicano, 64, had been found guilty in May on 76 other counts, including racketeering, wire fraud and computer fraud, in addition to wiretapping.
Christensen’s attorneys had asked that their client be tried separately.
Experts said the additional convictions were unlikely to have much effect on Pellicano’s sentence, which some estimated would not be more than 10 years.
But for Christensen, a conviction means not only a possible prison term but also the likely loss of his law license and potential harm to his 110-lawyer Century City firm.
Christensen, who remains free on bail until his sentencing Nov. 17, was ordered by the judge to surrender his passport and remain in the area.
Christensen faces 10 to 16 months in prison, according to sentencing guidelines, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
The judge may go beyond the guidelines to make an example out of Christensen because his actions as a lawyer marked a corruption of the justice system, Levenson said.
The conclusion of the trial gives the green light to a slew of civil lawsuits that have been filed against Pellicano, Christensen, AT&T; and the city of Los Angeles that were put on hold during the criminal proceedings.
Brian Kabateck, who represents some of the alleged wiretap victims, said his clients could be entitled to $5,000 to $10,000 in damages for each incident in which their private conversations were tapped.
Pellicano, who once again acted as his own lawyer, was hardly a factor in the trial, and U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer on occasion had to remind the attorneys to include him in their discussions. The private eye passed up opportunities to make an opening or closing statement and chose not to cross-examine a number of government witnesses.
But unlike in the first trial, in which he called only one witness, Pellicano called four FBI investigators to the stand and grilled them at length about their efforts to decrypt the files uncovered from his office.