Commentary: Pellicano-related civil suits make sequel far better than the original


Don't change your phone number just yet, but Anthony Pellicano is back.

The wiretapping private investigator, convicted last year of listening in on more conversations than a talent agency call-roller, still sits in a downtown Los Angeles jail for what likely will be the rest of his life. But Pellicano plays a starring role in more than a dozen civil cases pending among those duking it out over who should pay for the sleuth's criminal enterprise. After stalling during the trials of Pellicano and fellow convict Terry Christensen, many of those battles are beginning to move forward.

The web of Pellicano-related litigation is so tangled that it's tough to begin unraveling it. There's the 5-year-old complaint for infliction of emotional distress and more claims filed by former Hollywood Reporter editor Anita Busch against Pellicano, Michael Ovitz and a host of others, which finally is set to proceed beyond the pleading phase. Producer Bo Zenga is suing Paramount chief Brad Grey, superlawyer Bert Fields and others, with a ruling on the defendants' effort to toss the case coming in the next few weeks. A separate class action chugs along against phone companies for allowing the wiretaps to happen.

Then there are the marital disputes that spilled into Pellicano tawdriness. "Die Hard" director John McTiernan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI before withdrawing the mea culpa last month, has been targeted by his ex-wife for invasion of privacy. Keith Carradine, on the other hand, is on the plaintiff side against his ex and Pellicano, and Kirk Kerkorian's ex, Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, is going after the former MGM mogul, attorney Christensen and others.

Not to be outdone, model Monika Zsibrita's recently unsealed lawsuit against Pellicano and former fling Chris Rock alleges, among other things, that Rock's comments on Howard Stern's radio show unfairly characterized her as a gold digger who was set up by a Nigerian hustler. "I am not a poor girl," Zsibrita told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't need to date people for money."

Just last week, entertainment lawyer John LaViolette joined the Pellicano party with a five-count complaint against producer Andrew Stevens. Stevens was granted immunity at the criminal trial and testified that he listened to Pellicano wiretaps of confidential conversations between LaViolette and his clients at Intertainment during the German company's heated litigation with Franchise Pictures. (Disclosure: I was a litigation attorney for Franchise in 2002.)

Given the wide swath of people affected by the Pellicano wiretaps, it's not surprising that lawsuits started flying soon after the allegations came to light. What makes the cases interesting is that for all of its circus theatrics and the conviction of Pellicano, the criminal trial largely failed to deliver on the promised comeuppance to the industry players who allegedly benefited from Pellicano's skills.

These civil cases thus could prove a much more impactful second act -- call it "Pellicano II: Revenge of the Fallen" -- at least as far as the general entertainment community is concerned.

"The criminal trial to a large extent was a bust," says Brian Kabateck, who represents Carradine and other plaintiffs. "The way to hit Hollywood is in their pocketbook. These cases are going to cost people millions of dollars and will send a clear message."

That message, if it ever comes, is at least six months to a year away, and the defendants are vigorously denying liability as the cases wind their way through Judge Peter Lichtman's courtroom.

Another reason for the broad blame game concerns Inmate No. 21568-112 himself. It's doubtful Pellicano, whose lack of funds contributed to the disastrous decision to represent himself in the criminal trial, could pay a judgment if one were awarded.

In fact, many lawyers with whom I've spoken believe the eventual fall guys could be the phone companies and cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, all of which have deep pockets and failed to stop the wiretapping.

"Everybody realizes that making license plates will never pay a judgment," Kabateck says. "But the big fish here are just as culpable. The question is, what is someone's privacy worth?"