End is near for Pellicano trial

Jury listens to closing arguments

“The Pellicano Investigative Agency was nothing more than a criminal organization operated by a well-connected, well-paid thug.”

That’s essentially how assistant U.S. attorney Daniel Saunders began his closing argument for the government on Tuesday in its trial of former Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano and four co-defendants charged with illegal wiretapping and racketeering that benefited the P.I.’s celebrity clientele.

Saunders called co-defendant Mark Arneson, a former Los Angeles Police Dept. sergeant, a “dirty cop” who, he said, was “secretly working to dismantle police cases” while being paid by Pellicano. “There was not one record of Pellicano as a source,” he added, referring to the cop’s claims that he often turned to Pellicano to help with police investigations.

The prosecutor said the government had proved its case through documents, testimony from former clients and victims and recordings of phone conversations between Pellicano and clients.

“Tires get slashed, computers get hacked, houses get broken into,” Saunders said. “And, of course, people’s phones get wiretapped.”

The long-running trial, now in its ninth week, finally goes to the jury this week after defense attorneys give their closing statements.

While the government presented a strong case, it does face some obstacles, namely, the lack of actual wiretapped calls Pellicano had illegally recorded that prosecutors could present to the jury.

It only had one such call to offer up during the trial; other audio recordings had been made from within Pellicano’s offices.

The biggest news for Hollywood was what didn’t happen: The industry got a walk.

The most riveting stories were the on-again, off-again testimony of Pellicano’s best client, Bert Fields, and Pellicano’s on-again, off-again decision not to testify on his own behalf because of loyalty.

But what the defense’s case lacked in impact on the entertainment community it made up for in sheer weirdness, ranging from the continued spectacle of Pellicano as a defendant and attorney and the jaw-dropping ineptitude of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Pellicano’s best performance took place out of view of the jury two weeks into the trial, when he explained to U.S. District Court Judge Dale Fischer why he wasn’t going to testify.

Two of Pellicano’s co-defendants, former phone company technician Rayford Earl Turner and Abner Nicherie, the businessman who listened to wiretapped conversations, declined to take the stand.

But the two defendants who did testify, Kevin Kachikian and Arneson, raised serious questions about the nature of the government’s investigation; the decision to indict the little guys instead of Pellicano’s powerful clients; and, in the case of Arneson, the quality of the government’s evidence.

On the stand, Kachikian, the computer whiz who helped Pellicano create his Telesleuth program, seemed almost believable in his testimony that he thought the wiretapping program had legitimate law-enforcement uses. Kachikian’s defense also reinforced the close connection between Pellicano and Fields’ firm, Greenberg Glusker.

Ricardo Preston Cestero, who worked in Pellicano’s audio lab, was called to testify about the legitimate uses for Telesleuth and the marketing work he did, apparently under the belief that the program had legal uses as well. Upon graduating from law school, Cestero got a job at none other than Greenberg Glusker.

Following Cestero to the stand was Greenberg Glusker attorney Jill Cossman, who initially handled the trademark application for Telesleuth. Her testimony was designed to show how Kachikian could believe he was engaged in honest work.

Arneson, who allegedly ran illegal background checks for Pellicano, and his attorney Chad Hummel put on the most serious defense and nearly managed to derail the prosecution’s case.

Allowing Arneson to testify on his own behalf looked like a terrible decision at first, opening him up to a brutal cross-examination by Saunders. But after a series of unsuccessful motions for a mistrial over the testimony, Hummel hit paydirt.

On cross-examination designed to show that Arneson badly needed money, Arneson was shown a bankruptcy petition, which he insisted was a forgery. On rebuttal, the prosecution introduced a witness to testify that she had helped Arneson prepare the bankruptcy papers. But in a “Perry Mason” moment, Hummel revealed that the witness, Phyllis Miller, had filed a fraudulent petition in Arneson’s name and that her husband was in prison for forgery.

After a long weekend of briefing, Fischer declined to order a mistrial, but she offered a number of jury instructions designed to show that Arneson did not lie about never filing a bankruptcy petition.

Thanks to Arneson, the role of Michael Ovitz was rehashed during the defense case.

Hummel called Stan Ornellas, the FBI’s lead investigator on the Pellicano case, to testify about the nature of the investigation, specifically whether any attempt was made to verify Arneson’s claims that he did legitimate work for Pellicano.

While being questioned by the government, Ornellas spelled out the connection between Ovitz and reporter Anita Busch, in case it wasn’t already clear from the prosecution’s case. Ornellas originally thought Steven Seagal was behind the threats to Busch that led to the raid on Pellicano’s office. But an audit of Arneson’s searches of LAPD databases showed that Seagal was not a client and that he did searches of Busch and former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub shortly after Ovitz hired Pellicano. Ovitz previously testified that he had no idea Pellicano was using illegal methods to get information about Busch.

Finally, Hummel kept alive the anticipation that Fields would at last testify. His reasons for calling Fields were not entirely clear, but when prosecutors questioned the relevance of the testimony, Hummel told the court it would go to disproving that Arneson was part of a criminal enterprise.

The specter of Fields testifying first arose during the prosecution’s case when the government told the judge that Fields planned — they incorrectly believed — to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege if called.

That led to a statement to the media from Fields that he would testify if called. The government declined to take him up on his offer, presumably because it didn’t want a witness it couldn’t control. After days of delay, during which Fields actually showed up at the courthouse, Hummel had a change of heart for which he gave no reason.

In the end, the result only increased Fields’ mystique as the witness nobody dared to put on the stand.