One of Los Angeles best-known celebrity attorneys pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that he paid recently indicted private investigator Anthony Pellicano to wiretap the former wife of billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
The plea by Terry Christensen came on the same day that Los Angeles city officials moved on two fronts to investigate how many LAPD officers might be moonlighting as private eyes or illegally accessing confidential law enforcement records.
The inquiries, requested by the Police Commission and Councilman Jack Weiss, were in response to an ongoing FBI investigation and grand jury allegations that Pellicano and former LAPD Sgt. Mark Arneson repeatedly used national and state law enforcement databases to dig up dirt on behalf of Pellicano’s clients, who included lawyers and celebrities. Both Pellicano and Arneson have pleaded not guilty to wrongdoing.
To date, 13 people have been charged in the case, and federal authorities have made it clear that their investigation, launched more than three years ago, is far from over.
In a five-minute appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Abrams, Christensen was arraigned on charges that he paid Pellicano $100,000 to illegally wiretap the phone of Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, who was engaged in a bitter child support battle with her financier ex-husband.
Last week’s indictment of Christensen, 65, alleges that the Beverly Hills lawyer conspired with Pellicano between March and May 2002 to wiretap Lisa Kerkorian to gain an advantage in the child support dispute.
The conspiracy, the indictment alleges, began with Pellicano’s receiving a telephone call from an unknown lawyer instructing him to contact Christensen about “going after” Lisa Kerkorian’s attorney, who had referred Christensen to the state bar for an undisclosed reason.
During a series of conversations, the indictment says, Christensen at least twice asked Pellicano what he had heard in the case and once asked specifically about what Lisa Kerkorian was discussing with her attorneys. On numerous other occasions, the indictment charges, Pellicano would share the results of his wiretaps with Christensen, twice reminding the attorney to be careful about the information because it could only have been obtained by secretly listening in on conversations.
After Tuesday’s court appearance, attended by at least half a dozen friends and law partners of Christensen, his attorney again asserted that Christensen had taken the information provided by Pellicano because he had believed that the lives of Kerkorian and Kerkorian’s then-4-year-old daughter were in danger.
“The actions of Terry Christensen were legally justified and necessary and the exact action that any reasonable attorney would take when his friend and a young child were faced with threats of death and serious injury,” said lawyer Terree Bowers.
Minutes before Christensen’s court appearance, Joann Wiggan, 52, pleaded not guilty in connection with the Pellicano case. Wiggan was charged with lying to the grand jury about her knowledge that a co-worker at SBC allegedly assisted Pellicano with the wiretaps.
To date, three SBC employees have been charged in the case, as have two veteran policemen. One, former Beverly Hills Officer Craig Stevens, has pleaded guilty to illegally accessing police records for Pellicano. The other, former LAPD Sgt. Arneson, is alleged to have been an integral part of Pellicano’s wiretapping enterprise.
Responding to concerns about the Los Angeles Police Department policy allowing officers to work as private investigators, the Police Commission on Tuesday asked for a report on how many officers do so.
Chief William J. Bratton said only two LAPD employees have permits to work as private investigators. He added that the former officer involved with Pellicano did not have a state license as a private eye.
As for misusing department computers to improperly gather information, Bratton said, “We have disciplined a very significant amount of people.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Weiss asked for a closed-door report from the LAPD and city attorneys on the policies surrounding outside employment for officers and the safeguards in place to prevent unauthorized access to computers.
“The Pellicano case makes clear that there are a small number of law enforcement officers who succumb to temptation and abuse their badge,” said Weiss, a former federal prosecutor.
“One reason I’m scheduling the hearing is for the department to explain exactly what it has done to correct these problems,” he said. “As bad as this case may become, it would be even worse if the department does not take action today to assure that cops don’t abuse outside employment opportunities or confidential information in the future.”
Also Tuesday, the MGM Mirage, the casino company controlled by Kerkorian, announced that Christensen had resigned from its board of directors pending a resolution of his case.
The attorney is a founding director of the company, which owns such Las Vegas hotels as the MGM Grand, the Bellagio and the Mirage.
MGM Mirage Chief Executive J. Terrence Lanni said, “We are confident that after a trial on the merits, he will be exonerated.”
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Patrick McGreevy and James Bates contributed to this report.