Editor’s note: Rachel Abramowitz will be periodically checking in on the trial of Anthony Pellicano -- former private eye to the stars, who faces 110 counts of racketeering, wiretapping, conspiracy and other federal charges -- and writing about what the case means to Hollywood.
Two allegedly crooked guys commiserate on the phone about the crookedness of the movie business. There’s the graft. The hypocrisy. The dreadful bloviating. But that’s just how “Die Hard” director John McTiernan (recently sentenced to four months in jail for lying to the government) and his henchman, private eye Anthony Pellicano, bond while discussing the wiretapping of McTiernan’s “Rollerball” producer Chuck Roven.
And it was all there in surround sound as prosecutors Kevin Lally and Daniel Saunders played a 16-minute tape in court of the duo. “The scheming, the wriggling, the lying, the hypocrisy, oh, my God. Oh, my God,” moans Pellicano, before asking for another $25,000.
U.S. vs. Pellicano has provided a parade of human misery, of unhappy individuals who forked over fistfuls of cash to the former gumshoe to the stars, Pellicano, to just make it all go away. There’s Robert Pfeifer, a former record executive who hired Pellicano to torment his ex-girlfriend, businessmen in legal disputes over money, accused rapists and murderers trying to get exonerated, and various assorted ex-wives. But is there anything pettier than shelling out bucks for a private eye to find out what your producer is saying behind your back to the studio?
Apparently McTiernan got a little too used to the idea of the director as god. Duplicity, mendaciousness, lying by omission -- all occasional occupational hazards of life in the movie business, but most who survive in Hollywood suck it up and grow thick skins. Apparently not McTiernan.
This week in Pellicano, the government had an ashen-faced Roven on the stand as they laid out evidence that McTiernan and Pellicano wiretapped the über-producer’s phones in summer 2000, while they were in the throes of making the box office bomb “Rollerball.” Again, prosecutors drove home the point of just how invasive Pellicano was, providing notes from the gumshoe’s computer, with names of people Roven talked to (CAA agent Dan Aloni, Paramount marketing maven Gerry Rich) and notes of his conversations. (Incidentally, Roven appeared to be doing nothing remotely untoward, though his penchant for long-winded preambles apparently irked Pellicano, who got bored listening.)
On the tape, Pellicano brags repeatedly about his Hollywood connections, whom he could employ on McTiernan’s behalf, people like mega-lawyer Jake Bloom: “Jake Bloom is a personal friend of mine. . . . All it would take is one phone call from me.” Or then-MGM President Michael Nathanson: “There was a whole lot of %$^# with him and prostitutes and cocaine. If I called him and said, ‘McTiernan is my guy’ . . . Michael owes me. He’s scared to death of me as it is.” (Nathanson declined to comment.)
The pair complained about the corruption endemic to the movie business, reeling off stories about productions such as “Pluto Nash” and “Anna and the King,” which supposedly shelled out millions in graft.
“It’s so corrupt,” said McTiernan, explaining how his “Rollerball” production had to pay off a fire department in Canada after a suspicious fire on the set. “Everybody has their hands out.”
The other mystery of the week was the bombshell dropped early Tuesday morning by the prosecution that they had been notified by Bert Fields’ attorney, John Keker, that the legendary Hollywood attorney to the stars (who provided a major chunk of Pellicano’s business) would be taking the Fifth. Within hours, Fields had sent out the S.O.S. to the media world (L.A. Times included) that he was not going to invoke his right against self-incrimination: “I have nothing to hide. . . . And I will be glad to testify whenever asked.”
In court on Wednesday morning, the government noted that Keker no longer represented Fields. Keker is a famed trial lawyer in his own right, best known for prosecuting Oliver North on behalf of the United States.
Many Pellicano watchers went into overdrive trying to parse the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
Despite a persistent shadow cast on him by his relationship with Pellicano, Fields has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He has maintained he had no knowledge of Pellicano’s alleged shenanigans.
Still, Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson theorizes, “Most defense lawyers’ advice to someone in Bert’s situation would be ‘Take the Fifth.’ It gives you the most protection.”
But taking the Fifth would have been a major P.R. hit for Fields, whose name and whose firm, Greenberg Glusker, have popped up repeatedly as frequent clients of the private eye. And it could have had ramifications if anyone tried to sue Fields in federal court, where as Levenson points out, taking the Fifth in a criminal trial “can be used against you. . . . It’s not an automatic judgment, but it’s an admission.”
Fortunately for Fields, of the dozen or so civil cases rising out of L’Affaire Pellicano, the only one that names him is from writer-producer Bo Zenga (who was allegedly wiretapped during his legal battle with Brad Grey), and it’s filed in state court. Fields’ attorney Brian Sun (who now represents Fields in all his Pellicano legal matters, both civil and criminal) said the Fields kerfuffle of the week was nothing more than that -- a kerfuffle of mistakes and mistaken inferences. The only reason Keker is no longer on the case, he said, is because Fields believes he’s out of the woods on any criminal matter. As the government itself pointed out in court, the statute of limitations had run out on charges such as wiretapping. “John [Keker] is still available to assist Bert should he need it,” said Sun, “but our perception is that the criminal investigation is over, and Bert, who has nothing to hide, will testify if called upon by the government to do so.”
So Bert’s ready to talk, though the government is unsure it wants him. On Wednesday morning, prosecutor Saunders said the government did not know whether it was going to call Fields as a witness. Who knows what Fields would actually say?
Without a doubt, Pellicano would give his maestro, the lawyer who fostered his rise, an unctuous salutation from his defendant’s chair. Genuflect perhaps? Still, Levenson notes, “It’s dangerous for the prosecution to call him. He’s not a friend of the prosecution. The trial watchers all want to see Bert Fields. We all suspect he has the goods. It would be so interesting to hear what he has to say. But from the prosecution’s point of view, you’d rather win a dull case than lose an interesting one.”