Anthony Pellicano and his tangled web

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Times Staff Writers

Anthony Pellicano cut a figure straight out of “L.A. Confidential.” Intimidation for hire — the tough-talking gumshoe with the Louisville Slugger always at the ready.

Over the course of his 20-some years in Los Angeles, he also managed to insinuate himself into the New Hollywood — a place where ambition, rivalry and hardball tactics are as much an art form as a blood sport.

The outlines of Pellicano’s long shadow are now emerging in an unfolding federal investigation in which the private detective and 12 others have been indicted on various charges of wiretapping, bribery and witness tampering. The private investigator has pleaded not guilty and been denied bail.

As names of grand jury witnesses, a subject of interest and those who were allegedly wiretapped surface, the complex web of those touched by Pellicano conjures up a not-so-distant period in which Hollywood, never the most peaceable kingdom, was embroiled in especially bitter feuds.

For years, Pellicano bragged loudly about his vast insider knowledge, and it helped make him a player in this world. He and Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, whose wife once worked as an office assistant for the private eye, power-lunched together, according to a source close to Meyer. Meyer and his wife declined to comment. Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, then a top talent manager, attempted to develop an HBO pilot with Pellicano about a Hollywood detective, according to several sources and a representative for Grey. Paparazzi snapped his photo with stars, and magazines and newspapers, including this one, wrote colorful stories about his exploits.

It’s easy to see how Pellicano, with his alternately menacing and unctuous persona, would appeal to men in love with power. And Pellicano himself aped Hollywood’s imperious style. A source who knew Pellicano well told The Times that she saw the private eye throw a plate across the room at then Hollywood hot spot Le Dome because the garlic across his spinach was chopped instead of sliced. Pellicano called the chef a profane name, the source recalled, then tipped the waiter $300.

Then in November 2002, Pellicano was arrested and later convicted of illegally possessing grenades and plastic explosives, and federal investigators began calling Hollywood heavyweights.

Celebrity litigator Bertram Fields, who has handled many of Hollywood’s high-profile cases, was interviewed by the FBI and has since been told he’s a subject of interest. Brian Sun, an attorney for Fields’ firm, said Friday that attorneys for Fields and the firm have been in ongoing talks with the government “to resolve the suggestion, driven largely by the media, that Bert or anyone else at the firm engaged in any misconduct in their dealings with Pellicano.”

Grey and Meyer, along with Creative Artists Agency founder Michael Ovitz, appeared before the grand jury as witnesses. One blue-chip figure has been arrested: Terry N. Christensen, the lawyer for billionaire Kirk Kerkorian for 30 years, was accused of conspiring with Pellicano to wiretap Kerkorian’s former wife during a bitter custody dispute. On Tuesday, he entered a not-guilty plea.

Of Pellicano’s connections within Hollywood, his defense attorney, Steven Gruel, said, “I believe he was a very successful private investigator and apparently had a very impressive clientele, and that’s all I know.”

Now most in town choose to keep their distance from Pellicano, although Meyer repeatedly trekked to a federal prison near Bakersfield to visit the disgraced private eye, according to sources.

The current indictment focuses on the years 1997 to 2002, when Hollywood was awash in a series of particularly vicious disputes. Some of those who the indictment alleges were wiretapped or the subject of unauthorized background checks were embroiled in litigation around that time with clients of Fields or his law firm. The vagaries of the federal case against Pellicano and speculation about what connection the various industry lawsuits might have to it have consumed Hollywood cognoscenti.

In six lawsuits, Fields and his Century City law firm — Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger and Kinsella — were representing clients, including Grey, against people whom Pellicano allegedly wiretapped or ran unauthorized background checks on around the same time. Ovitz’s company, Artists Management Group, was litigating with two people, and Ovitz was involved in public disputes with four others that Pellicano is accused of improperly investigating.

Both Grey and Ovitz, through their representatives, have adamantly denied engaging in any of the alleged illegal activity with Pellicano. “Throughout the investigation the government has repeatedly assured Mr. Grey that he has no involvement other than as a potential witness,” said Paramount spokeswoman Janet Hill.

Likewise, Ovitz’s attorney, James Ellis, said that Ovitz “is advised that he is considered to be a witness in the proceedings.” Fields has confirmed that federal investigators have told him he’s a subject of interest in the inquiry, and Greenberg Glusker managing partner Norman Levine added: “Some members of our firm used Anthony Pellicano as an investigator. However, if Mr. Pellicano engaged in any illegal activity, he did so without their or the firm’s knowledge.”

For the moment, the private detective appears to have adopted a code of silence. In a 1993 Vanity Fair profile, Fields espoused his faith in Pellicano’s loyalty: “I would bet my life and my child’s life that Anthony would never betray someone he was working for.”

Ironically, Pellicano might already have done so.

What the Christensen indictment suggests is that Pellicano taped not only his targets, but his employers too.

A 50-Year Win Streak

A fabulously charming host and, in his off hours, a published Shakespeare scholar and the author of pulp detective novels under the pseudonym D. Kincaid, Fields is known as the master of the threatening letter, the lawyer to hire when a client wants a scorched-earth attack.

Fields loves to boast that he hasn’t lost a case since 1956. Pellicano was involved in some of the high-profile ones. When Fields was defending pop star Michael Jackson in 1993 during the singer’s first child molestation investigation, Pellicano disseminated an audiotape to the media that he said showed that the boy’s father wanted to extort Jackson, a charge the father repeatedly denied.

The lawyer met Pellicano through their mutual client, the famously debauched “Top Gun” producer Don Simpson, now dead from drug abuse. Pellicano dug up dirt on an assistant who sued Simpson for emotional distress for, among other things, allegedly having her arrange his assignation with prostitutes. Her case was thrown out in 1992. Fields represented Simpson.

Ten years later, the indictment alleges that Pellicano improperly investigated three other Hollywood insiders — action star Sylvester Stallone, comedian Garry Shandling and producer Bo Zenga — who had legal battles with clients represented by Fields at about the same time.

Stallone was allegedly wiretapped by Pellicano in February 2002, around the time he sued his former business manager, Kenneth Starr, for $17.3 million. Some years earlier, Stallone had employed Pellicano, but they had a falling-out, according to various news reports.

In another case handled by Fields’ firm, Hollywood producer Aaron Russo (“Trading Places”) was sued by a New York hedge fund manager, Adam Sender, a Greenberg Glusker client.

As Russo tells it, he was getting his hair cut in Beverly Hills in 2001, when two women approached him with papers. Russo bolted from the barbershop, running out the back door to his car as the women pursued him. One of the women was Denise Ward, a private investigator. Ward told the Los Angeles Times last week that she was working for Pellicano at the time and had been trying to serve Russo with the Sender lawsuit.

A few months later, Russo found that a million-dollar default judgment had been entered against him, and Greenberg Glusker was also accusing him of transferring assets to his former wife.

According to the indictment, Pellicano had allegedly been wiretapping Russo and running the names of other family members through police databases around the same time. Pellicano also allegedly ran an unauthorized background check on Sender that same year.

In 1998 and 2000, Fields represented Grey in two nasty suits. At the time, Grey was a powerful talent manager whose firm, Brillstein-Grey, represented Brad Pitt, “Sopranos” creator David Chase and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani among others.

Now chairman of Paramount Pictures, Grey had started out as the assistant to Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein when the indie king was still a concert promoter. He later joined forces with John Belushi’s manager, Bernie Brillstein.

In his youth, Grey was often referred to around town as “Little Ovitz,” a testimony to his ambition, networking skills — and ferocity. His aggressive tactics earned him a reputation as someone to both admire and fear. As Brillstein, his former partner said, “Brad was very smart and ran a business to make a lot of money. Yes, people were intimidated by Brad, because Brad didn’t speak a lot. He only spoke when he had something to say. In this town, that causes fear.”

In 1998, Grey was hit with a lawsuit by Shandling, his signature client of two decades. It struck at the heart of the sometimes-murky relationship between talent and their managers, raising the question of whether a manager can represent the financial interest of his client and himself at the same time.

Shandling’s suit accused Grey of taking excessive fees from their hit series “The Larry Sanders Show,” including a $45,000-per-episode fee as an executive producer and 50% ownership of the TV series. In his book “Courting Justice,” Shandling’s attorney, David Boies (best known for representing the government in its antitrust suit against Microsoft and presidential hopeful Al Gore in the Florida recount), also wrote that during discovery he and his legal team found at least one accounting deal in which some of Shandling’s funds were used to pay a Brillstein-Grey debt. Grey, who was represented by Fields, responded with a $10-million countersuit, launching what would become, in part, a public relations war. He alleged that Shandling’s erratic and abusive conduct drove writers away from “The Larry Sanders Show,” costing the production millions. From his court documents, it is likely that any litigation would have introduced the events surrounding the sexual harassment suit of actress Linda Doucett, Shandling’s former girlfriend, who alleged that she had been fired from the show after they broke up.

In January 1999, according to the indictment, Pellicano and a police source allegedly ran an unauthorized background check on Shandling, and on March 4, 1999, did the same on Doucett. According to the indictment, that same day unauthorized background checks were also run on comedian Kevin Nealon, who was another Brillstein-Grey client and a friend of Shandling’s, and his ex-wife, Linda Nealon. (Kevin Nealon wouldn’t comment. But in an op-ed piece in Wednesday’s New York Times, he joked about finding himself in such elite company in the Pellicano indictment list: “OK, never in my wildest imaginings did I actually ever think ‘Kevin Nealon’ and ‘wiretap’ would appear in the same news article, but I am elated to have made this group. It makes me feel important.”)

On the eve of the Shandling trial, Fields, who had been tied up representing DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg in a suit against the Walt Disney Co., invited Boies to his Century City law office. Boies wrote in the book that Fields caved, agreeing that Grey would return to Shandling his ownership interests in both “The Larry Sanders Show” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” as well as an eight-figure cash settlement. News accounts said that, in return, Grey got a small percentage of the TV series “News Radio,” which Shandling owned. Fields has publicly said that the settlement figure was much lower.

Then, in 2000, Zenga sued Grey’s firm, alleging that he had been recruited to work on the original script for the hit film “Scary Movie” and that Brillstein-Grey had reneged on an oral agreement to provide him a producer credit and a profit-participation in the box-office success. In 2002, Grey won the suit hands down as his legal team, led by Fields, shredded Zenga’s credibility. The trial judge threw out the case, and the appellate judge affirmed the decision.

According to the indictment, Pellicano wiretapped Zenga between February and April 2001 and ran the names of his family members, his business partner and his lawyer through police computers. In 2004, Zenga said in an interview with The Times that he had testified before the grand jury about the effects of that wiretap and Pellicano’s intimidation of his witnesses in the litigation with Grey.

A Turf War Erupts

Fields, 76, also had a long personal and professional relationship with Ovitz and represented CAA on various matters during Ovitz’s tenure. Ovitz had even played matchmaker, hooking up Fields with art consultant Barbara Guggenheim. And when the duo eventually did fall in love, Ovitz, along with his then CAA partner Meyer and actor Warren Beatty, gave the couple an engagement party in 1991.

In December 1998, Ovitz was launching his own management firm, Artists Management Group, after getting fired as Disney’s second-in-command. That put him in direct competition with Kevin Huvane and Bryan Lourd, his former proteges at CAA, the superagency he helped found. By 1999, a turf war had erupted between AMG and CAA, as clients were raided. It was a battle that would extend into the next decade.

In August 2001, Mark Arneson, an LAPD sergeant, allegedly made an unauthorized check of the DMV records of Lourd and Huvane for Pellicano, according to the indictment.

James Ellis, an attorney for Ovitz, declined to discuss the former agent’s relationship with Pellicano but said “that was the subject of the questioning of Mr. Ovitz by the federal investigators.” He added that “Michael categorically denies ever authorizing, or having any knowledge of, any wiretapping, illegal background checks or other wrongful means of gathering information.”

Undeniably, the turn of the millennium was the nadir of Ovitz’s professional career. It was widely estimated in media reports that Ovitz ended up losing $100 million to $200 million on AMG. In a much-publicized interview with Vanity Fair in August 2002 after he sold the company, Ovitz was alternately self-pitying and venomous about those he labeled his adversaries, from the rival moguls he said dissuaded investors from putting money into AMG, to his former CAA proteges.

Other targets of Ovitz’s anger included New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub, who Ovitz claimed in Vanity Fair was in cahoots with Ovitz’s perceived archenemy and DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen. In the spring of 2002, just as Ovitz was trying to sell his company, Weinraub and reporter Anita Busch wrote a series of articles in the New York Times chronicling how Ovitz’s company was unraveling. The stories made public the fact that Vivendi-Universal, whose subsidiary Canal Plus had a $4-million pool to invest in AMG projects, had performed an audit on Ovitz’s books. In his Vanity Fair interview, Ovitz said that it merely involved a Rolex he had given a lawyer and Christmas gifts for reporters. Last week, Ellis, his attorney, said of the audit that “no breaches of our agreement or financial improprieties were found.” Fields represented Ovitz during the audit.

In any case, Canal Plus ended its funding of Ovitz’s company, and the media attention helped depress the price of AMG. According to New York magazine, Ovitz complained vociferously about Weinraub to Joseph Lelyveld, then-executive editor of the New York Times, saying: “What does the New York Times have against me?” Weinraub declined to comment.

Ovitz does not deny that he complained to the paper about its coverage, although Ellis said, “It was not specific to any story or reporter…. Those concerns continue to this day.”

According to the indictment, a Pellicano police source illegally ran the two reporters’ names through a police database in May 2002. In November of that year, Pellicano allegedly began wiretapping Busch. Later, while she was researching an article for the Los Angeles Times on mob ties to actor Steven Seagal, Alexander Proctor, who told a police informant on tape that he had been hired by Pellicano, smashed her windshield and left a dead fish and a warning. Jan Handzlik, Seagal’s attorney, said the U.S. attorney’s office has determined that Seagal had no connection to the dead fish incident.

This case, however, led federal investigators to Pellicano’s office, where they found thousands of tapes and other documents, some of which are now being cited as evidence in the current allegations against Pellicano.

Neither Busch nor her lawyers returned calls. She is now suing the private eye and has subpoenaed Ovitz in her case. Earlier this month, Ellis declined to comment about the subpoena of his client. In addition to his contentious relationship with reporters, Ovitz also had to contend with a number of complaints from former employees and business associates: Arthur Bernier, a former AMG manager, sued the firm in April 2002, alleging that AMG owed him about $200,000. James Casey, an independent sports agent for NBA players who had brought Boston Celtic star Paul Pierce to AMG, sued the firm in March 2002 to collect a $450,000 finder’s fee. In court documents, AMG attorneys denied the allegations. The Bernier case was settled in arbitration in 2003, and Casey voluntarily dismissed his case in November 2003, apparently after the parties mediated the claim.

According to the indictment, Arneson ran a background check on Bernier on May 9, 2002, and on Casey on May 16, 2002.

Bernier, who specializes in sports marketing, said he’d never even heard of Pellicano before the indictment. “I never heard clicks on my phone. I never saw three guys in trench coats walking behind me. I was very surprised that my civil liberties appear to be violated.”

More federal indictments are expected in the Pellicano case, and all of Hollywood waits. Few remember being this riveted by a police investigation since the arrest in 1993 of high-class madam Heidi Fleiss and the supposed existence of her little black book with the names of her wealthy Hollywood johns.

Always ready for the cameras, Pellicano stepped in the middle of that media frenzy to announce publicly that a certain Columbia executive denied hiring any of Heidi’s girls. That was widely considered a media blunder, as Pellicano’s grandstanding did nothing but focus the limelight on his client.

Now the man who loved to cozy up to celebrities and bask in their reflected glory is finally getting his own share of media attention. It’s just not the kind that he or any of his past clients welcome.

“Oh, how the mighty do fall,” Fleiss said in a recent interview. “Pellicano was a bumbling idiot, but all these big shots hired him…. I’m supposed to be this bottom feeder with no morality — well, I have more morals than all of them put together.”


Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Shawn Hubler contributed to this report.