YOU’VE GOT TO HAND IT TO MARK ARNESON, the man can take a punch — the verbal kind, at least. After being built up on the witness stand as the Last Boy Scout by his lawyer, Chad Hummel, Arneson was thrown into the wood-chipper of prosecutor Daniel Saunders’ cross-examination. (See April 11 and 17 blogs at https://blogs.laweekly.com/ladaily/pellicano-briefs.)
During the racketeering and wiretapping trial of private investigator Anthony Pellicano and four co-defendants, Saunders has struck some in the press gallery as grimly aloof. He certainly put his heart, however, into the takedown of Arneson, whose lawyer, Hummel, had gambled by allowing him to testify on his own behalf.
By the time Arneson finally stepped down from the stand Wednesday afternoon, few in the courtroom thought that Hummel’s bet had paid off. Eichmann in Jerusalem had looked almost laid-back in the dock compared to Arneson, whose expression was that of a man who’d been slapped in the face with every question.
One man who will be spared Arneson’s experience is Hollywood superlawyer Bert Fields, who often used Pellicano as his go-to troubleshooter. Hummel had earlier announced that his first witnesses would be Arneson, former FBI agent Stanley Ornellas and Fields — whom Saunders did not conceal his eagerness to cross-examine. (When queried as to why Fields’ testimony was canceled, Hummel explained simply that “the reasons are confidential.”)
With Fields gone, there are no more marquee names on anyone’s witness list. In the soap-operatic tradition of American justice, this has left court visitors debating why some really powerful people in town (including Fields, Michael Ovitz, venture capitalist Alec Gores and Canadian billionheiress Taylor Thomson) got to use Pellicano’s allegedly illegal services without so much as a fix-it ticket, while other clients much further down the food chain were either indicted or given immunity in exchange for their testimony against the Gang of Five.
One thing that strikes the Pellicano trial spectator is the number of perfectly clear audio recordings the famed investigator routinely made of his office phone calls — without the knowledge of the people on the other end of the line. The government was only able to salvage two of its own wiretaps from Pellicano, who had booby-trapped his own computer files to keep out the curious with the software program TeleSleuth. So the prosecution has repeatedly played aloud these other, much more plentiful Pellicano-to-client recordings, in which Pellicano is heard profanely bullying his employers.
WHY WOULD PELLICANO, LIKE RICHARD NIXON before him, keep these secret recordings? Each one was a stick of dynamite that, like the plastic explosives he kept in his confiscated office safe, could have blown him apart. And now they are doing just that, figuratively. Perhaps the legal danger they posed was part of the thrill for Pellicano.
Throughout these playbacks, Pellicano markets himself as “an old-style Sicilian,” playing on his listeners’ Mafia-movie images of men who are resolute, honorable and tightlipped. He even tried to sell this self-image to a member of an alleged Westside bookmaking crew connected to organized crime. But more shocking was the fact that there was apparently a Westside bookmaking crew connected to organized crime.
Yet there it was, being discussed in 2001 by Arneson and Ornellas. Seems that the feds and the LAPD had been staking out Matteo’s Restaurant on Westwood Boulevard and Enzo’s Pizzeria in Westwood Village as suspected sports-bet dens. Suddenly court spectators were imagining Chris Moltisanti and Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri strolling down Weyburn Avenue, pushing UCLA pukes out of the way or ordering calzones and not paying for them.
Arneson lamely tried to explain that he’d remembered L.A. Times writer Anita Busch (she of the fish-on-the-cracked-windshield incident) not because he’d run her name on his police computer for Pellicano, but because he’d associated her with an Enzo’s stakeout — and because he thought it funny, he said, that a woman would have the last name “Busch.”
Worse for Pellicano, he is heard on the recordings offering to help out alleged bookmaking-crew big shot Leo Portocarrero, at the time far off in Peru. “You’re in a lot of fucking trouble,” Pellicano advises Portocarrero in his best Goodfellas voice. But, the wily P.I. told the supposed bookie, there was a way out of the mess — and a way to deal with traitors in his organization: “I’ve got connections to do whatever you want to do.”
Redemption did not come cheap when the old Sicilian was involved, though. “I need a hundred grand in cash, just to start,” Pellicano tells Portocarrero. “Most of this isn’t going to go into my pocket. … We’ll talk about my pocket later down the line.”
Portocarrero never took Pellicano up on his offer. Instead, Arneson has testified, the private eye helped lure the purported bookmaker back home to Marina Del Rey, where he was arrested. If Pellicano is convicted and sent to federal prison, he may once more have to play up his thin-crust paisano persona — or do some explaining to his new roommates.