March 6, 2008 / 8:36 AM / 10 years ago

Hollywood braces as Pellicano trial opens

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When federal authorities began investigating private investigator Anthony Pellicano six years ago, many in Hollywood held their breath.

<p>Farrah Fawcett (L) is escorted by Anthony Pellicano as she leaves the courthouse after testifying against her former boyfriend, writer-director James Orr, in this August 12, 1998 file photo. Pellicano is accused of wiretapping and illegally accessing the information of more than 100 people. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>

Now as opening statements begin Thursday in a downtown Los Angeles federal courthouse in the wiretapping and racketeering case against the former celebrity sleuth, a few more gasps are likely. And given the potential witness list, a few more bombshells may be dropped.

Pellicano was the go-to guy when the rich and powerful -- including top industry executives and A-list clients -- needed to dig up dirt on an opponent. As prosecutors and law enforcement started sniffing around, it looked like the case against him would end up being a case against Hollywood.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, only a handful of those connected to Hollywood have been prosecuted because of their ties to Pellicano -- former Hollywood Records president Robert Pfeifer and “Die Hard” director John McTiernan. Both pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about their knowledge of Pellicano’s wiretapping abilities but have yet to serve time in federal prison. McTiernan is currently appealing his guilty plea.

That’s not to say Pellicano’s relationship with Hollywood and his clients, which included Paramount Pictures chief Brad Grey, former talent agent Michael Ovitz, attorney Bert Fields and billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, won’t be front and center in the trial, which began Wednesday with jury selection.

“It kind of frizzled a little bit from that perspective,” Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said of the Hollywood connection. “But we could still learn a bit from trial.”

The government casts Pellicano as a gumshoe who built a facade as a legitimate private investigator. But beneath the surface, he allegedly ran a racket that included employing a police detective, phone employees and others to provide him with confidential information.

Pellicano and four co-defendants -- who include a former Los Angeles police detective, two phone company employees and a former client -- are accused of wiretapping and illegally accessing the information of more than 100 people, including actor Keith Carradine, late producer Aaron Russo, producer Vincent “Bo” Zenga and former Hollywood Reporter editor and subsequent Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch.

It was a bizarre threat against Busch -- something straight out of a low-budget Mafia flick -- that launched the investigation into Pellicano.

Busch awoke one morning to find her car window smashed, a dead fish with a rose in its mouth and a note reading “Stop.”

Federal investigators eventually linked Busch to Pellicano and his client Ovitz, who had been the subject of stories by Busch and New York Times writer Bernard Weinraub. The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that after discussing with Ovitz people who were “the source of bad press against Ovitz,” Pellicano hired Mark Arneson, who at the time was an LAPD detective, to do records searches of Busch and Weinraub, and recruited a telephone company employee to run Busch through databases.

Ovitz, who was called as a grand jury witness, has denied any knowledge of alleged wiretapping or illegal background checks detailed in the government’s indictment.

The incident with Busch opened a can of worms for the government, which spent the next four years investigating Pellicano and his industry tie, before handing down an indictment against him in 2006.

Entertainment attorney Terry Christensen, whose clients included Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures Entertainment, MGM and Paramount Pictures, was later added to the indictment, accused of conspiring with Pellicano to wiretap Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, the ex-wife of Kirk Kerkorian; the pair were embroiled in a custody dispute. Last month, Judge Dale Fischer, who is presiding over the trial, ruled that Christensen will be tried separately from Pellicano and the others. Christensen has denied the allegations.

Ovitz is among the 127 potential witnesses that the government could call during the trial. The list also includes Grey, Carradine, Fields, Zenga, Universal Studios chief Ronald Meyer, Chris Rock, Garry Shandling, Sylvester Stallone, celebrity divorce lawyer Dennis Wasser and Farrah Fawcett.

Grey’s attorneys allegedly hired Pellicano to investigate Zenga, who had sued Grey for breach of contract and fraud. Grey has denied any knowledge of Pellicano’s activities and has never been charged with a crime. Carradine was allegedly a target of a Pellicano investigation, hired by the actor’s ex-wife, Sandra Carradine, during their then-divorce proceedings. She has since pleaded guilty to perjury for lying about the wiretaps during her grand jury testimony.

But despite titillating evidence that has been uncovered -- for example, the DMV and criminal history checks allegedly done by Arneson on top talent agents Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane -- Levenson predicts that the trial will be “deliciously unpredictable.” That Pellicano fired his attorneys and is representing himself at trial is also likely to add to the excitement.

“It’s what is making people out there nervous. If there is one person who knows all the dirty secrets, it’s Anthony Pellicano, and he’s unleashed. He’s representing himself,” Levenson said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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