As hardball Hollywood lawyers go, Terry N. Christensen ranks in the top tier.
For 35 years, the former Marine Corps prosecutor has served as billionaire Kirk Kerkorian’s legal muscle in contentious deals involving studios, casinos, airlines and the nation’s biggest automakers. According to court records, Christensen once told Kerkorian’s former wife that his client would “bury” her financially if she continued with a child support lawsuit.
“We are tough and we can be, I guess, ruthless,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1994. “But it’s always within the bounds of honesty, and I think that’s why courts respect us.”
On Wednesday, a federal grand jury alleged Christensen had stepped out of bounds, indicting the 65-year-old attorney on wiretapping and conspiracy charges. Christensen allegedly paid Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano at least $100,000 to tap the phones of Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, a former tennis pro who was married to the mogul for only a month in 1999, to gain the upper hand in their dispute.
Christensen’s indictment sends a shock wave through the ranks of Hollywood’s most powerful lawyers and executives. It provides the first hint at the extent of taped conversations prosecutors have seized from Pellicano’s files, and liberally quotes from them.
Pellicano allegedly told Christensen that his eavesdropping showed that Lisa Kerkorian’s child, whom Kirk Kerkorian did not father, “gets on the phone maybe five or six times a week and just cries into the phone.” In another chat, Christensen allegedly told Pellicano it would be “interesting” to know what Lisa Kerkorian’s reaction was to that day’s court proceedings.
Christensen’s indictment represents the first charges brought against a member of the small fraternity of entertainment lawyers who regularly employed Pellicano in bare-knuckle battles representing celebrities and moguls.
Last week, Pellicano was indicted, along with six others, on federal charges that he wiretapped and performed illegal background checks on dozens of executives and celebrities, including Sylvester Stallone and comedian Garry Shandling. Bertram Fields, one top attorney who used Pellicano, has publicly acknowledged that he is a subject of the investigation. Fields has denied any wrongdoing.
Christensen’s indictment was greeted with disbelief by his longtime legal partner, Patricia Glaser, and, notably, by the notoriously private Kerkorian. The 88-year-old Los Angeles financier, who briefly employed Christensen in the 1980s as president of his Tracinda Corp. investment firm, issued a statement calling his attorney “a paragon of integrity.”
Glaser said Christensen became involved with Pellicano only after death threats were made against Lisa Kerkorian’s child. The case became fodder for tabloids and talk shows when Lisa Kerkorian sought $320,000 a month for her daughter and when such details as the spending of $70,000 for the child’s birthday party were revealed.
“He is probably the best strategist of anybody I have ever worked with,” Glaser said of Christensen. “He is a wonderful lawyer, a wonderful friend and has nothing but integrity.”
Another friend and client, Peter Sadowski, executive vice president and general counsel for Fidelity National Financial Inc., said Christensen resigned his seat on the company’s board of directors Wednesday because of the indictment.
“He needs to deal with this situation and we are all praying that it will turn out OK and he’ll be back on the board,” he said.
But one Los Angeles lawyer, who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his career, said he and several other lawyers left Christensen’s firm after tiring of his “we-will-do-anything-to-win” philosophy.
Christensen is a partner in the Century City firm Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro.
“The first case that I ever tried in my life was a murder,” Christensen told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1998, describing his prosecution of three Marines for the beating death of another.
“We tried the case and we convicted all three,” he said.
Christensen has been involved in such high-profile Kerkorian business ventures as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, which was sold last year, as well as the billionaire’s Las Vegas holdings, including the MGM Grand and Bellagio hotels.
Christensen also represented Kerkorian in a lengthy legal fight challenging the terms of Daimler-Benz’s 1998 acquisition of Chrysler Corp., in which Kerkorian was a major shareholder. He frequently serves as a spokesman for Kerkorian on investment issues, including his recent criticisms of General Motors Corp.'s management.
In addition to Kerkorian, Christensen’s law firm has done work for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures.
Court records show Christensen’s legal scrapes are not limited to the ones he’s been involved with as Kerkorian’s attorney.
One lawsuit filed in 1996 by his former legal partner, Andrew White, alleged that Christensen had failed to make payments on a loan from the partnership. It also alleged he made personal car-lease and credit card payments from the firm’s funds without the partnership’s knowledge.
Christensen denied the allegations in the lawsuit, which was settled. White declined to comment Wednesday.
Christensen also led a bitter defection of lawyers from the now-defunct law firm Wyman, Bautzer, Kuchel & Silbert in 1988, taking with them Kerkorian and other clients. Wyman, Bautzer alleged Christensen and his partners raided its clients.
Christensen has never been shy about his aggressive style. His firm’s website still includes a 1989 Business Week profile of Christensen in which he briefly sums up his pugnacious approach to the law.
“Sometimes,” he said, “we have to get in the other guy’s face.”
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.