McTiernan cops a plea

A case with two facades

Helmer John McTiernan pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of lying to the F.B.I. about whether he knew that disgraced private eye Anthony Pellicano had conducted illegal wiretaps on his behalf.

McTiernan’s two court appearances on Monday were short and predictable: In the morning, his lawyer announced that the helmer had reached a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, then haggled over the terms of his client’s $50,000 bond. The guilty plea was entered later in the afternoon.

McTiernan’s plea follows a story in last Friday’s New York Times reiterating Pellicano’s dealings with Paramount chairman Brad Grey and Mike Ovitz. The story did not allege that either man had been involved with illegal activity. It nonetheless drew more attention than the legal troubles of McTiernan, who directed a string of hits in the 1980s and 1990s including “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for the Red October.”

But the two tales are emblematic of how the saga sparked by Pellicano has seemed to have split in two halves: One is a plodding, methodical federal investigation into the down-and-dirty dealings of divorces and business disputes. The other half is still mostly a search by the media for that elusive next shoe to drop.

Publications ranging from the frothy to the sober have predicted that the tentacles of the Pellicano case will ensnare Hollywood’s power centers. This week, Entertainment Weekly dubbed the saga “Hollywood’s Watergate,” writing, “if it weren’t for the palm trees and Hummer limos, you’d swear this was Washington D.C., circa 1972.”

Last week, the Economist issued its own dispatch from L.A., intoning that the “wiretapping scandal threatens to engulf Hollywood’s elite.”

But so far, the long-running federal investigation has failed to live up to such billings. Even as the indictments pile up — Pellicano and six others were named in February in a 110-count racketeering and conspiracy indictment — the case has primarily skirted along the edges of the industry.

Before McTiernan was indicted, the Los Angeles Times dubbed Keith Carradine (who counts a brief run on HBO’s “Deadwood” as one of his most prominent recent roles) as “the biggest name allegedly wiretapped by Anthony Pellicano to file a civil lawsuit.” Carradine alleged that Pellicano and others wiretapped his phone while going through divorce proceedings.

McTiernan seemed to overtake that honor yesterday when Reuters carried news of his guilty plea as “the biggest Hollywood name indicted so far in the wiretapping scandal.”

The helmer plead guilty as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. According to the feds, McTiernan allegedly hired Pellicano to conduct wiretaps on Charles Roven, who produced “Rollerball” which McTiernan helmed.

Prosecutors charged McTiernan with making false statements to F.B.I. agents when he allegedly said he denied knowledge of any wiretapping by Pellicano.

In addition to McTiernan, others to be caught up in the Pellicano investigation include former Hollywood Records head Robert Pfeifer, who on April 7 pleaded guilty to hiring Pellicano to wiretap an ex-girlfriend, and entertainment lawyer Terry Christensen, who was indicted in February on charges of hiring Pellicano to wiretap the ex-wife of Kirk Kerkorian.

Rumors have swirled that more indictments are coming. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Saunders, who is leading the case, said in court last month that he expected at least one more before Pellicano’s trial was due to begin on April 18, but has now been pushed back.

While the Los Angeles Times, which has assigned a team of reporters to the story (a recent story on McTiernan and Roven was credited to five staffers), it’s the New York Times that has been trying to connect more prominent names to the scandal, key among them Grey.

In a story on Friday headlined “F.B.I. Links Big Film Names to a Detective,” the Times reported on summaries of interviews the feds conducted with Grey and Ovitz in which both admitted having had direct dealings with Pellicano.

Grey’s attorney Carl Moor then told the L.A. Times that there was “nothing significant” in the interviews and added, “He has been repeatedly told he is not even a subject, much less a target, of this investigation.”

Ovitz attorney Bart Williams made the same point and added, “If information was gathered on people other than people in litigation, that information was collected without [Ovitz’s] knowledge.”

From the time the feds raided Pellicano’s offices and seized computers containing numerous wiretap recording, speculation has been rampant about what’s on those tapes. The number of people involved is sprawling as investigators reveal more in their court filings.

But if the Pellicano case is Hollywood’s Watergate, it’s not clear who’s playing the Nixon role.

So far, the New York Times has been pushing the investigation towards Grey, who, of all the people named in association with Pellicano, is currently in the greatest position of authority.

There are some who have even begun to speculate that just by being at the center of attention — that is, being run on the front page of the Times — Grey’s job is in danger. But Viacom chair Sumner Redstone has been trying to tamp down such talk.

He told Newsweek this past weekend, “I have read The New York Times, and I still say I saw nothing in it that would make me change my opinion.”