LOS ANGELES (CN) — Fifteen years after a Los Angeles Times reporter found a dead fish, a rose and a note reading “Stop” on her car’s punctured windshield, her lawsuit against one-time “private investigator to the stars” Anthony Pellicano may be close to trial.
The terrifying discovery June 20, 2002, by entertainment journalist Anita Busch would spark an FBI investigation and more than a dozen lawsuits that ensnared, in one way or another, former Disney chairman Michael Ovitz, top entertainment lawyers Terry Christensen and Bert Fields and a who’s who of celebrities.
The investigation revealed that on behalf of high-powered entertainment figures and law firms, Pellicano and his Pellicano Investigative Agency regularly tapped the phones and recorded the conversations of his clients’ business and litigation opponents. He also bribed police officers for data in law enforcement databases.
“At the height of [the Pellicano Investigative Agency]’s success, scores of people retained PIA for its often illegal services,” the Ninth Circuit said in a 2015 opinion.
Busch’s 2004 lawsuit claims Ovitz hired Pellicano to intimidate her from writing unflattering articles about Ovitz while he was trying to sell his company, Artist Management Group.
Trial is set for June 5 — two weeks shy of the 15th anniversary of Busch’s discovery of the dead fish, rose and note on her windshield.
Adding yet another complication, Busch in February sued the FBI, seeking to use agents’ investigative reports at trial.
Her suit against Pellicano, now nearly 13 years old, has hung on long past California’s usual drop-dead date for taking a civil lawsuit to trial because of lengthy criminal prosecutions against Pellicano, who is serving a 15-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas.
Another federal prisoner is Christensen, co-founder of the major Hollywood law firm formerly known as Christensen, Glaser, Fink, Jacobs, Weil & Shapiro. After losing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in January, he finally has begun serving a three-year sentence for hiring Pellicano to tap phone calls by the former wife of the late billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.
Federal juries in 2008 convicted Pellicano, Christensen, former L.A. police officer Mark Arneson, onetime telephone company technician Rayford Turner and two other men of numerous counts of racketeering, wiretapping and other crimes. A second ex-police officer and another phone company employee had already pleaded guilty.
Then in August 2015 — two years after hearing oral argument — the Ninth Circuit dismissed a few of the many charges against Pellicano, Arneson and Turner, as well as the lone aiding-and-abetting charge against another man, Abner Nicherie. The court noted that the case was so complex that the defendants’ 14 briefs totaled more than 900 pages, while the prosecution’s was nearly 700.
Prosecutors said at the time that the dismissed charges against Pellicano were relatively minor, and other experts have predicted his sentence is not likely to change.
The Ninth Circuit sent the cases back to the federal trial court around the first of the year, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Lally.
U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer has not yet set a date for the three men to be resentenced.
On the civil side, the latest activity is Busch’s suit against the FBI to get a court order for agents to testify about the reports they prepared during their investigation of Pellicano and his wiretapping.
“Specifically, plaintiff requests that this court enter an order compelling defendant to authorize the deposition testimony of agents or former agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation so as to authenticate witness statements taken by them and previously disclosed to the parties in the state litigation,” her 7-page lawsuit says.
The bureau turned over the agents’ reports on the witness statements, known as 302s, to the civil litigants back in 2010. However, for those to be used as evidence at trial, the agents who prepared them must testify that they are accurate.
Requesting or subpoenaing FBI agents to testify is known as a Touhy request, after the 1951 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States ex rel. Touhy v. Ragen.
The FBI told Busch “that it would not permit the testimony absent a federal court order or waiver,” she says in her Feb. 23 complaint.
According to a letter attached to the complaint, from the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, that is the bureau’s standard procedure.
“In order for the FBI to process your request, you must supply us with a federal court order, a waiver, or some other basis for production consistent with the Privacy Act” of 1974, the letter states.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Busch’s attorney Evan D. Marshall, with the Law Offices of Ian Herzog, said he assumes the bureau won’t fight the request for a court order when it goes before a judge. Two former federal prosecutors who now teach law, Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University Fowler School of Law and Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School, both agreed.
“I think they’re just trying to cover themselves by requiring this to go through to a court order,” Levenson said.
Marshall said he believes Busch’s underlying lawsuit against Pellicano may be the only one related to the imprisoned detective that could make it to trial. Nearly all the civil litigation about his activities has been resolved, Marshall said.
Besides Pellicano, Busch’s lawsuit also names Ovitz, Pacific Bell Telephone Co. and Arneson as defendants, according to Marshall.
The phone company’s attorney, Jason M. Frank of Frank Sims & Stolper in Irvine, said he could not discuss the case.
Ovitz’s attorneys, Eric M. George of Browne George Ross and Jennifer Keller of Keller Anderle, did not respond to calls about the case. Keller previously told a newspaper that the lawsuit was “a bunch of poppycock.”
Pellicano’s criminal lawyer, Steven Gruel of San Francisco, did not return calls about his client. The former detective is representing himself in the civil litigation.