THERE’S SOMETHING REASSURINGLY PORNOGRAPHIC about the Pellicano trial. The prosecutors try to fix its narrative somewhere in the dry, shifting dunes of purloined DMV and crime-database printouts, but the whiff of sex wafts over testimony like cheap perfume. Think Judgment at Nuremberg directed by Russ Meyer. Tales of adultery, rape and office romance among both the mighty and the lowly have filled the trial’s transcripts.
Take the story of Gaye Lynn Palazzo, the ditzy former Pellicano bookkeeper who allegedly stuffed envelopes full of cash for her boss’s black-bag operatives. Given to credibly answering prosecution questions with “I’m drawing a blank,” Palazzo described her relationship with a Pellicano co-defendant as “98 percent physical” — leaving us to ponder what could possibly have happened in the remaining 2 percent of their time together.
Yet sex isn’t everything — there’s also the pornography of power, which arrived during the prosecution’s final days in the form of Michael Ovitz, the Hollywood mogul who looked and sounded for all his money like a Midwestern accountant.
With $75,000 of his own cash, Ovitz hired Anthony Pellicano in April 2002, he said, to find out who was “sourcing” negative articles about Ovitz and his imploding Artists Management Group. The next month one of AMG’s law firms, Gorry Meyer & Rudd, kicked in another 75 G’s in three checks. The journalists in question were then–New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub and L.A. Times contract writer Anita Busch, who’d also co-written pieces on Ovitz and AMG for The New York Times.
“They have a reason for having Ovitz up here and it has nothing to do with this trial,” one of the defense attorneys told me about the government’s intentions. “They want him to testify so the government can reopen the five-year statute of limitations on him. Think Barry Bonds.”
This tantalizing scenario means that if the government finds any inconsistencies between Ovitz’s previous grand-jury testimony and what he said this week, he may well later find himself sitting where Pellicano does today. Unlike many of the government’s witnesses, Ovitz was never charged with a crime or offered immunity from prosecution. In fact, the rule of thumb here has been that the bigger the fish, the wider the hole in the net for them to escape through.
This was also the case for billionaire Alec Gores, who hired Pellicano to spy on his wife, Lisa, who was allegedly sleeping with his richer, younger brother Tom. Likewise with entertainment superlawyer Bert Fields, who practically used Pellicano as his law firm’s house detective. And the same goes for Canadian media heiress Taylor Thomson, who allegedly used Pellicano to destroy the life of one of her children’s nannies during a bitter divorce.
All of these illustrious people claimed they simply didn’t know Pellicano was doing anything illegal on their behalf.
And yet, the prosecutors claim, Pellicano’s mandate was to dig deeply into the pasts of his clients’ foes, beneath the topsoil of public record, to find any drunken-driving charges, abortions, allegations of sexual misconduct or financial impropriety — not because such scenarios would have any bearing on whatever legal case was pending, but because of the unstated blackmail potential they’d offer the owner of such knowledge. That was where the real power lay — in information that was available to only a few men and women with the right connections and enough cash.
“Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption,” says Governor Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The governor tells the novel’s narrator, JackBurden, to find some dirt on an opponent because he knows that every person harbors a crime that can be used against him. “There is always something,” Stark tells Burden, who then recalls, “And he told me to dig it out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen dove-gray hide.”
“I FELT I WAS GOING TO DIE. I THOUGHT, ‘This is how it ends — in front of a stupid apartment building,’ ” Anita Busch recalled, sobbing, of the moment she claimed a car sped toward her as she walked to her rented car in Hollywood one August morning in 2002.
It was the melodramatic vandalizing of Busch’s Audi two months before (a scrawled order to “stop,” accompanied by a dead fish and a red rose) that drew the FBI into a crime that eventually lead them to Pellicano Investigative Agency Ltd. and the roundup of Pellicano and four associates, all of whom are standing trial today. Busch says she barely got into her rental when the Mercedes pulled up alongside it and a man “with this really sickening smile” made a gesture of silence and goodbye, as she felt something warm run down her leg.
Although Pellicano is not on trial for harassing Busch, she has a lawsuit pending against him and Ovitz, and she believes Ovitz knowingly sicced the implacable private eye on her. Busch also believes it was Pellicano who organized the campaign of intimidation that included the trashing of her computer hard drive and the tapping of her phone — bringing her to an emotional nadir in which she has ceased to be a journalist.
Busch recounted these alleged events for prosecutor Daniel Saunders, defense lawyer Chad Hummel and, excruciatingly, Pellicano, who tormented her by having her recall the two incidents, which occurred as she was co-authoring articles detailing actor Steven Seagal’s association with business partner Jules Nasso. (Pellicano’s and Hummel’s implications being that her alleged assailants were affiliated with Seagal’s legal tiff with Nasso.)
As Busch sobbed, shook or covered her face with her hands, Pellicano would pitilessly ask her to speak up or repeat in detail what she had just said. In regard to the alleged Mercedes incident, he demanded to know which direction the two cars were pointing in, the names of the cross streets, the color of the Mercedes, how many doors it had, and if it was a convertible or a hardtop.
“I remember looking down, thinking it was the color of dirt,” Busch said.
Forget “dove gray” — dirt, for Pellicano, has always been the color of money. And the nice thing about dirt is that when its owner adds a little water to the unflattering information it becomes mud that can be flung against enemies if they happen to be suing you for divorce or sexual harassment, or writing irritating newspaper features. The more dirt Pellicano’s clients received, it seems, the more power they flexed over their opponents.
THE PROSECUTION RESTED ON APRIL 10 — not with the rumored bang but with a decided whimper. Sylvester Stallone’s business litigator, Lawrence Nagler, spent the late morning discussing how a Bert Fields client seemed to know key details about strategy that Nagler and Stallone were planning for a lawsuit against the latter’s business manager, Kenneth Starr.
Then, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Lally wrapped things up by briefly questioning the Long Beach detective involved in investigating the 2001 involuntary-manslaughter case against a San Diego orthodontist who was accused of picking up a couple of party girls and feeding them Ecstasy, the date-rape drug GHB and booze. Once more the tang of sex hung in the courtroom — but this porn movie turned into a snuff film because one of the women, 23-year-old Sandra Rodriguez, died after falling 12 floors beneath the orthodontist's Long Beach Hyatt Regency room.
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Daniel Saunders concluded the government’s case by playing a phone conversation Pellicano recorded between himself and co-defendant Mark Arneson, who is accused of supplying the detective with the raw dirt that Pellicano turned into gold. On this occasion, a DMV record revealed that there was a bench warrant out for Sandra Rodriguez’s arrest for a DUI charge.
Pellicano can be heard crying out with joy when he hears the news. He knew from his storied experience that this information would help convince a jury of Rodriguez’s untrustworthiness. Sandra Rodriguez was dead — twice so. Sure enough, the orthodontist beat the manslaughter rap — after paying Pellicano $60,000 for his services.
On the recording, Pellicano then complains about the rising cost of electricity and how the price of heating his pool in Agoura is killing him. Could a trial get any dirtier than this?