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The Pelican Briefs 

Hollywood is not messing its shorts over FBI investigation

Thursday, Nov 13 2003
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It was an inevitable plot twist, really. That, one day, an investigative journalist celebrated by Hollywood, and an FBI organized-crime expert unknown to Hollywood, and a pit-bull Harvard lawyer honored by Hollywood would find themselves enmeshed in a case revolving around a scumbag Sunset Boulevard gumshoe hired by Hollywood. Superficially, it seems the perfect fictional setup for drama. B ut the reality is pure comedy, more worthy of Damon Runyon than David Mamet. We already have a dead fish, a rose and a hustler. Now, where are the dames and the dice to complete the picture?

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Variety et al. would have us believe in their oh-so-serious recent articles that rampant paranoia is sweeping Tinseltown. Because the feds are fanning out to investigate what they’re telling potential witnesses is a treasure trove of wiretap transcripts belonging to The Pelican, a.k.a. Anthony Pellicano, L.A.’s film-noirish private investigator. Though the name of über-lawyer Bert Fields has surfaced in the press most conspicuously in connection with the FBI questioning, many prominent Hollywood players are known to have routinely used the dick’s services. Then again, it was Fields himself who first revealed publicly that the FBI had asked him about Pellicano. The attorney’s claim is that he never authorized the P. I. to perform any wiretapping, ever.

It’s a long, long journey for famed FBI special agent Stan Ornellas — the Los Angeles–based leader of the team investigating Pellicano — to even try and connect the dots between anybody hiring Pellicano and actually knowing about Pellicano’s wiretaps.

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So Hollywood is spying on Hollywood. Talk about an almost victimless crime. Good luck finding more than a few sympathetic characters who were “done wrong.” For that matter, who among the media didn’t assume that Pellicano had wiretapping in his bag of P.I. tricks. (After all, Pellicano’s Web site promised “your problem becomes my problem.”) You know that old saying, lie down with dogs and you get up with fleas? Well, do business with The Pelican and you’re itching to lawyer up or possibly get subpoenaed. As if that isn’t the newest status symbol anyway for CEOs, CFOs and other power elite.

If anything, bemusement best describes the sentiment in the hallways at the studios, at the agencies, even the law firms supposedly being looked at by a grand jury. Then wink-winks and nod-nods about Pellicano, who’d been a member of their inner circle for eons. After his arrest and plea bargain, it was Poor Pelican, he really stepped in it this time. But no way, no how, would this scandal ever touch them.

Their shrugging has a lot to do with their sangfroid. The way they see it, why are G-men wasting time on this nonsense when real criminals are still at large? After all, there’s Osama, Saddam, Enron’s Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, the anthrax letters’ sender, the White House’s leaker, the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Perle warmongerers, Les Moonves’ First Amendment tutor and George Clooney’s script guru.

It’s the most insidery of insider cases imaginable, from the moguls talking about it, to the media reporting on it, to the threatened L.A. Times writer, Anita Busch, who started it all.

Back on June 20, 2002, Busch found a dead fish, a rose and a one-word note reading “Stop” on her car while making calls about an alleged Mafia extortion scheme against actor Steven Seagal. A thug-for-hire fingered Pellicano as the instigator of this lunacy. When a dozen G-men searched Pellicano’s West Hollywood offices, they found pipe bombs in his locked safe and then transcripts on his computer. The result has been a tangled web to unweave.

The rumors about an FBI probe started surfacing months ago, and crescendoed into a virtual shout in recent weeks. But along with every whispered “Boy, this is going to mushroom into something big by January” is also the absurd recognition that the feds want to make the world safe for fungus like Garry Shandling. Yes, for years he was in a bitter legal dispute with ex-manager Brad Grey, who is repped by Bert Fields. Now here’s Shandling, the well-known whack job (“He’s got as many personalities as Roseanne — and none as interesting,” wrote Bernie Brillstein in an autobiography. “He gives me the creeps”) whining to reporters about being a possible victim of Pellicano’s wiretapping. And we’re supposed to give a rat’s ass about this because . . .?

Now, let’s look at the cast of characters on this Follywood case.

First, there’s Lowell Bergman, a name recognizable to only the handful that saw Michael Mann’s Oscar-nominated movie The Insider. Portrayed by no less than an under-the-top Al Pacino, Bergman was the investigative producer on contract to 60 Minutes for 16 years. Until he found himself caught in the buzz saw when CBS buckled to corporate pressure and pulled the plug on a story from a whistleblower about the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. Bergman gave the smoking gun to the press to force the network to do the right thing and air the segment.

These days, Bergman wears two hats, one as a producer with PBS’s Frontline and another as a correspondent with The New York Times. Although others are also contributing to the Pellicano reports, a big gun like Bergman was brought in to counter the L.A. Times’ self-described “task force” working the Pellicano story. Since then, Bergman has been the behind-the-scenes driving force of the NYT’s articles, with the understanding that he can use whatever is dug up for a Frontline documentary as well. After a storied career chasing down bona fide bad guys, it seems a big step down for Bergman to focus on Hollywood’s detention-hall delinquents, especially when it’s obvious the most prevaricating president since Richard Nixon is occupying the White House.

Another integral player is FBI special agent Stan Ornellas. If the call ever came in to Central Casting for an FBI agent, no one would fit the bill more perfectly. He’s the G-man who helped indict seven people, including former Bell city administrator John Pitts and Mayor Pete Werrlein Jr., on felony charges of racketeering and conducting an illegal gambling business in connection with the Bell Club, billed as the world’s largest card casino when it opened back in 1980. Since being given the organized-crime beat 10 years ago, Ornellas tracked down cyber-criminals Kevin Poulsen, Justin Petersen and Ron Austin and, for a while, trailed the infamous hacker Kevin Mitnick. (Among their dastardly deeds, Petersen and Poulsen rigged the telephone lines of three Los Angeles radio stations, enabling them to win two Porsches, two trips to Hawaii and thousands of dollars in the stations’ contests.)

Ornellas helped get to the bottom of the Busch threat case, which led him to Pellicano and Hollywood. Based on his conversations with potential witnesses, Ornellas clearly knows the names of Tinseltown players but not the intricacies of the relationships that make the entertainment industry go round. He is focused on why Hollywood swells would even do business with a lowlife like Pellicano, much less allow him to step over the line if — and it’s a huge if — they knew he had jumped it by wiretapping.

Finally, there’s Bert Fields, the Century City entertainment attorney whose nonstop lawsuits against Disney have earned him the nickname “The Exterminator.” (Full disclosure: Fields has submitted a declaration in support of a lawsuit I’m waging against Disney and News Corp.) Hollywood’s premier litigator, billed as never having lost a trial, Fields is best known for trying Jeffrey Katzenberg’s $250 million employment contract dispute with the Mouse House. He dragged Michael Eisner into court where the tall executive made that “midget” slur against the diminutive Katzenberg in front of gleeful reporters. 

Fields cut his teeth on divorce cases when he first went into practice and back when his client Jack Webb was doing Dragnet. Fields loves to tell how, when representing actor Edward G. Robinson over a disputed collection of Post-Impressionist paintings, he tricked Robinson’s wife into going out of town and then arranged to remove the paintings from the couple’s home in the dead of night. In 1982, Fields merged with the much larger Century City law firm that today is Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella. Fields’ team works in isolation; even other entertainment lawyers at the firm don’t know his cases until they hit the headlines. These days, most of Fields’ clients hire him after they’ve been on the opposing side of a deposition or negotiation.

No doubt the press coverage of Pellicano will continue, and Fields’ name will rate top billing in the scandal. But, what, him worry? Fields has always relished any and all media coverage — or didn’t you see his terrific recipe for chicken fajitas in the L.A. Times October 29 report on his Malibu supper party?

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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