Pellicano's clients deserved a more thorough cross-examination


What a dead fish of a trial. Sure, we'll soon know whether Anthony Pellicano, the alleged wiretapper to the stars, will stay in jail for longer than the six years it took to get a verdict. But for all the Hollywood hoopla spilling out of Judge Dale Fischer's courtroom, a key question remains unanswered: How could so many top lawyers empower Pellicano for so many years and never figure out that his "unique services" might be illegal?

From the beginning, prosecutors promised that the case would expose and punish those whose wink-and-nod strategy enabled an alleged criminal enterprise that victimized hundreds. Yet with the exception of attorney Terry Christensen, who faces a separate trial because the government has him on tape allegedly chatting about wiretaps, the feds never charged or even publicly challenged Pellicano's powerful network of lawyers.

Forget indictments. We would have settled for superlawyer Bert Fields explaining to the jury how one of Hollywood's sharpest and most respected legal minds never suspected that his unusually effective sleuth was crossing lines. Fields has denied any knowledge of Pellicano's bad deeds and even showed up twice to testify, but he was never called.

Prosecutors instead focused on Pellicano and his crew rather than those who paid his bills, effectively vindicating the tactics that allowed the P.I. to flourish in the first place. Even now, after all the attention the case has garnered, why would any lawyer who used Pellicano hesitate to do business in the future with a shadowy gumshoe? As long as you don't ask too many questions, plausible deniability exists if the feds come knocking.

"Lawyers are sworn to uphold the justice system," Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson says. "Anthony Pellicano can live life on the fringe, but I don't think lawyers can."

That was supposed to be why this silly spectacle of a case mattered. Pellicano never ran around snooping for his clients' own prurient amusement. He was a means to an end, a hardball strategy, and sometimes he was brought on board by aggressive, well-paid attorneys who, like baseball sluggers on steroids, desperately wanted to offer their teams an extra boost. That Pellicano's handiwork often aided court cases with millions on the line made a mockery of the litigation process.

"This (case) is about Larry Nagler (Sylvester Stallone's lawyer) having the same right to have confidential conversations with his clients as Bert Fields," lead prosecutor Daniel Saunders argued in his closing statement. "This is a case about people who believed that justice could be bought for a $25,000 nonrefundable retainer."

True, but none of those people was actually on trial. Instead, Pellicano and his crack team have become hookers poised to serve time for a bunch of well-heeled johns, some of them with fancy law degrees.

Which brings us to Christensen. The government's indictment claims that he used a Pellicano wiretap to learn confidential details of his opponent's legal strategy while representing billionaire Kirk Kerkorian in a nasty dispute with an ex-wife. Christensen denies any wrongdoing. Maybe that trial, set to begin shortly, will lead to a more meaningful discussion of what responsibility lawyers have for the conduct of their investigators. P.I.s perform a lot of legitimate services for a lot of great litigators, but when a guy like Anthony Pellicano steps over the line, he brings his clients with him.

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