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How long did it take journalist Anita Busch to actually know that Michael Ovitz had something to do with an intimidation attempt against her organized by Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano? Certainly not right at the moment a dead fish, a red rose and a card that read “Stop” were left on her car windshield in the summer of 2002. But did she know about Ovitz’ alleged role soon thereafter? Or was it four years later when she saw an article in The New York Times describing how Ovitz admitted hiring Pellicano to the FBI?
The Pellicano saga has prompted many investigations over the years, and the latest epistemological one was conducted by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle at a trial last autumn.
Now, the judge has issued his conclusion: Busch hadn’t pieced together the facts early enough to preclude a lawsuit against Ovitz from moving forward. As such, the next phase of the trial will examine the truth about Busch’s allegations against Ovitz, and whether Ovitz should be punished.
The ruling on Thursday (read in full here) was hardly a fait accompli. It took seven days of evidence presentation and another day of arguments to convince the judge that the case should indeed move to Phase 2. Other Pellicano-related lawsuits against the likes of Brad Grey and Tom Cruise have failed for lack of a timely filing.
In this particular case, Busch filed her lawsuit in May 2004. The original lawsuit alleging infliction of emotional distress, assault, privacy invasion and other torts was lodged against anonymous John Does. In November 2006, the lawsuit was amended to substitute Ovitz’ name for one of the Does.
Since the statute of limitations is two years, Busch’s addition of Ovitz in her lawsuit was challenged as coming too late.
That’s what prompted the judge to examine the facts almost as if they had come straight out of a detective novel. Some early clues pointed to Ovitz right away. Other clues steered Busch’s suspicions away from Ovitz.
In particular, Busch was working in 2002 on two prominent stories. One involved Jules Nasso, actor Steven Seagal and organized crime in Hollywood. The other was a series of articles about Ovitz’ career co-written with Times colleague Bernard Weinraub.
When Busch first got the “Stop” note, she testified that she understood it to mean stop writing about Nasso and Seagal. Yes, Ovitz’ name had come up, but when the FBI asked her about him, she responded, “No, he wouldn’t do that.”
Busch had thought that Ovitz had respected her work as fair, had invited her to his son’s bar mitvah, and had recommended her for a job at The Hollywood Reporter.
In late 2002, the intimidation campaign continued. She was assaulted outside her home by two men. Her computer was hacked. Her phone was tapped.
By November of that year, she learned about Pellicano and that a LAPD detective had run her name through a database in May 2002.
Busch kept personal notes about the incidents. “That was before the Seagal stories,” she wrote about the May date. “That was before I even joined the L.A. Times. Dear God … it could only have been one person … only one person makes sense and that is Michael Ovitz.”
Still, there were other things pointing another way including a file seized from Pellicano’s office titled “Steven Seagal Matter.”
At the trial, Busch said that there were times she was under the notion that it was Ovitz before vacillating. “Then I’d find out that Jules was close, close, close, close friends with Pellicano,” she testified.
Asked why she kept going back and forth, Busch answered that she was scared. Asked about what, she responded, “Getting killed by the mob.”
The testimony, found “credible” by the judge, is enough to keep the lawsuit against Ovitz alive.
Judge Berle says that Busch doesn’t lose her rights to substitute Ovitz’ name for a John Doe merely because she had a “suspicion of wrongdoing arising from one or more facts she does know,” and further that Busch had no duty to “search for facts she does not actually have at the time she files her original pleading.”
Busch had amended her lawsuit after an April 14, 2006, article in The New York Times in which the co-founder of CAA and former president of Disney said he had hired the private eye to obtain information about 15 or 20 people who were saying negative things about him including Weinraub and Busch.
It’s important to note that the merits of Busch’s case against Ovitz have not yet been tested. That new investigation into whether Ovitz was really responsible for the intimidation campaign will soon commence, although no date has been set yet.
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