April 9, 2008 / 9:19 PM / 10 years ago

Ex-Disney exec Michael Ovitz paid Pellicano to probe press

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Michael Ovitz, once one of the most powerful players in Hollywood, testified on Wednesday that he hired private eye Anthony Pellicano to investigate journalists writing negative stories about him.

File photo shows Michael Ovitz, former Disney President, arriving at the Sun Valley Resort in Sun Valley, Idaho July 10, 2007. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

But the ex-president of the Walt Disney Co and former talent manager said he never ordered Pellicano to threaten the journalists and knew nothing about illegal wiretaps or unauthorized background checks.

“I never instructed him (Pellicano) to do anything illegally,” Ovitz told the Los Angeles jury at the trial of the so-called private eye to the stars.

Ovitz, 61, the former head of the Creative Artists Agency, had a brief but acrimonious stint as a top executive of the Walt Disney Co in the mid-1990s which ended in his dismissal.

He was the latest in a string of movie stars and industry executives, including Chris Rock and Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, who have testified that they hired Pellicano, or were spied on by him, during disputes involving cheating spouses, paternity claims and show business contracts.

None have been charged and all deny knowing Pellicano was doing anything wrong but the lengthy trial has laid bare the dirty side of doing business in Hollywood.

Pellicano, 63, has pleaded not guilty to wiretapping telephones and bribing police and telephone company officials on a vast scale to run illegal checks on those causing trouble for his rich and famous clients.

He could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

Ovitz’s testimony related to 2002 when he was trying to sell his struggling subsequent venture, Artists Management Group. Ovitz said he wanted to find out the sources behind what he called embarrassing stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.

“It was an extraordinarily difficult time for the company and for me,” said Ovitz, adding he paid Pellicano $75,000 in cash. “All I wanted was a graceful exit from the business.”

Prosecutors allege it was Pellicano who in June 2002 left a dead fish with a rose in its mouth and a note saying “Stop” on the shattered car windshield of Los Angeles Times investigative journalist Anita Busch.

Busch’s complaint to police triggered a raid on Pellicano’s Hollywood office that eventually led to his trial.

Testifying on Wednesday, Busch said she was also accosted by two men outside her Los Angeles apartment who had tried to run her down. “I remember thinking I was going to die,” she said.

New York Times journalist Bernard Weinraub also received threats around the same time, prosecutors said.

Busch has filed a civil lawsuit against Ovitz stemming from the threats against her.

The trial is expected to last about another month.


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