"PLEASE DESCRIBE THE DATES when you started being a prostitute," asked the man in the expensive suit. "What was the last time you were paid for sex?"
Call me old-fashioned, but there was a time when such impertinence would be answered by either a slap or some bit of folk doggerel along the lines of "A gentleman doesn’t ask and a lady doesn't tell." This particular question, however, arose at the trial of disgraced private eye Anthony Pellicano and four codefendants — a courtroom bufadora of recrimination where anything goes.
Only three weeks old, the Gang of Five trial has laid bare L.A.'s true mosaic of diversity — not City Hall’s postcard melting pot but a psychedelic circus of powerful talent agents, high-priced hookers and lonely rich men tweaked on speed. Forget the $50 blowjob, that old staple of the L.A. economy — to step inside Room 890 of the Roybal Federal Building is to enter a brave new world where prostitutes are called "travel guides" and tricks are termed "encounters" that can run between $9,000 and $24,000.
For the record, the suit asking that cheeky question was Chad Hummel, the attorney for Mark Arneson, a former LAPD sergeant accused of illegally supplying Pellicano with reams of printouts detailing subjects’ arrest records and other private information. The lady in question was Erin Finn, a slender woman in her 30s with blond hair curtaining an angular face.
Moments before, Finn had told her story to the more sympathetic ears of government prosecutor Kevin Lally. A spunky Midwesterner, Finn had come to town with a dream and entrepreneurial savvy, and before long was running her own call-girl ring through a Web site called EducatedEscort.com (since renamed BrainyBlond.com), which serviced a specific clientele.
"It was during the dot-com era," she explained on the witness stand this week, "[and we] appealed to the socially awkward geeks."
Paging Robert Pfeifer! The Z-Axis video-game executive began dating Finn in 1997, when he was 42 and she was 26. Methamphetamine use would eventually annihilate Pfeifer's career; when he sued Z-Axis for sacking him, Finn testified in a deposition about his drug usage.
That’s when Pfeifer sicced Pellicano on her. The private eye’s job was to dig up dirt on Finn and use it to force her to recant her testimony that she’d seen Pfeifer on crystal meth during their stormy relationship. Pfeifer, who preceded Finn on the witness stand, appeared as a deeply humiliated and apologetic individual who was now writhing before the world as his misdeeds were laid out. He has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting wiretapping, and hopes his testimony against Pellicano will earn him a light sentence.
As with many of the trial's witnesses, much of Finn's time on the stand was taken up with identifying personal information about herself that Arneson is accused of pilfering, as well as summaries of Pellicano's alleged wire taps. A projection screen was filled with tight columns of print that dryly annotated her life, ranging from her business opinions ("Russian girls will do anything for $10") to small-world ironies (the man who carried out a break-in of Finn's home was also connected to an escort service) to ages of lost innocence (Finn's: 17, Pfeifer’s: 10).
PFEIFER PAID TO HAVE FINN’S COMPUTER hacked into and then sent out her images, escort-service information and e-mails to everyone in her mail server’s address book — including unsuspecting parents, other family members and friends.
The Pfeifer-Finn testimony revealed more than just this one couple’s tormented relationship, however. It also spoke of how people in this town affect a far-fetched ignorance of their actions. Pfeifer testified that he didn't know that "methamphetamine" was the Christian name of his favorite drug, which he'd just called "speed" all these years. The streetwise Finn claimed she had no idea what amyl nitrate was, replying, "Could it be the same as nitrous oxide?" (No honey, not unless the makers of Locker Room, Rush and other poppers are super-sizing their tiny products into 50-pound tanks.)
Likewise, court spectators would have little idea what kind of business Finn ran when she described it. “I was dealing with socially awkward geeks,” she repeated, pronouncing “geeks” as though she were a diplomat referring to “the Swiss” or “the Palestinians.” How refreshing, then, to watch Cheeky Chad Hummel make her call a spade a spade.
Hummel, who hails from the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips firm, possesses a commanding baritone and presence; he’s easily the most effective attorney representing the Gang of Five. Here he is, making Pfeifer snap out of a moment of self-delusion about Finn's night job:
"In December, 1999, she told you she was a prostitute. And before that you just thought she was your girlfriend?" Exactly.
SITTING BACK IN A PRISON-ISSUE GREEN WINDBREAKER and watching all this is the man at the center of the trial, Anthony Pellicano. The 64-year-old, onetime "PI to the Stars" looks bemused, even flattered, by the demolition derby of wrecked careers and ruined relationships he had a hand in organizing. (He eventually pressured Finn into perjuring herself by recanting her testimony against Pfeifer — and even moving back in with him for a few months.)
Pellicano's been acting as his own attorney, and, while he's no Johnnie Cochran, he hasn’t done as badly as some had predicted. Now that the novelty of watching him fumble about has worn off, Pellicano seems a little steadier at the lectern and draws fewer prosecution objections and rebukes from Judge Dale Fischer.
Fischer, a petite 56-year-old who sports a stylish flip of gray hair over her forehead, has a voice like that of "Mother," the spaceship computer in the movie Alien. She cuts attorneys off with an imperious I-have-spoken tone and once dismissed Pellicano’s complaint that he wasn’t allowed a cardboard box to haul his legal papers around with "Bad things are done with cardboard boxes." These days she seems pleased with Pellicano, even smiling indulgently when she silences him for making observations during cross-examinations.
Still, Pellicano often doesn’t cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Nor does he raise objections during testimony. This is probably the most serious shortcoming of his lack of legal expertise, because it puts his interests at the charitable whims of his codefendants' lawyers, who may at some point determine that it’s best for their clients to not help Pellicano. Perhaps objections are not Pellicano's style anyway, or rather, not suited to his courtly self-image: Objections are for whiners, for prosecutors and the lawyers of the former employees and clients who are now snitching on him.
Pellicano sees himself as above that — instead, he is the maligned, misunderstood hero of his own novel, or maybe of some Mario Puzo potboiler. He believes he is a gentleman of his word, “a Sicilian,” full of honor and chivalry.
He wasn’t exactly chivalrous, though, toward the woman whose life and privacy he allegedly infiltrated like a virus. ("She won’t be able to use a roll of toilet paper without me knowing," Pfeifer claims Pellicano told him.) He only appeared solicitous of Erin Finn during his cross-examination of her, noting that she appeared tense.
"Maybe," he said, "it would help you relax if you could play in the back of your mind 'Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.'?" Seven minutes later, when he finished questioning her, he turned his back on Finn and mumbled, "Have a nice trip home."
IF PELLICANO’S PARTING DIG was intended as a verbal Indian burn, he saved the real torture – in the court gallery, anyway — for the next day, when he began a marathon inquisition of ex-FBI computer geek Jeffrey Edwards. (“I left the FBI because I missed software programming more than I realized.”)
His preceding lengthy examination and cross-examination had been tedious enough — so much so that Judge Fischer allowed it to be interrupted so the prosecution could bring out Creative Artists Agency honchos Kevin Huvane and Bryan Lourd, who’d been cooling their heels for three hours.
The two were barely there half an hour total, and mostly just verified the projection screen of personal data that had found its way into Pellicano's hard drives. Eyebrows were raised only when Huvane explained that his driver’s license bore the address of CAA instead of his home because, "We have security problems with clients looking up where their agents live."
Huvane and Lourd allegedly appeared on Pellicano's radar during a bitter business dispute with the latter’s client, CAA cofounder Michael Ovitz, whose name will soon figure more prominently, as the trial moves deeper into that part of town where actors, agents and prostitutes make a living.
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Pellicano Briefs: The Garry Shandling Show Fri, Mar 14, 2008
Anthony Pellicano's Gang of Five Stand Trial Fri, Mar 7, 2008
And updates at LA Daily here: blogs.laweekly.com/ladaily/pellicano-briefs/