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Moment of truth for man with inside story on Hollywood sleaze

This was the moment Hollywood had been relishing and dreading for years: the moment when Tony Pellicano, the entertainment industry's most ruthless private investigator under indictment for corruption, intimidation and illegal wiretapping, finally had his day in court.

The 63-year-old private eye, who has happily admitted using a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as one of the professional tools of his trade and bragged that he only resorted to intimidation and violence when he absolutely had to, once had the kind of contacts book that could scare the living daylights out of anyone thinking about trying to take him down.

Indeed, from the moment he was arrested in late 2002, following a police raid that netted hundreds of hours of illicitly recorded phone transcripts as well as money, jewellery, hand grenades and enough plastic explosive to blow up a passenger jet, all of Hollywood shuddered at the idea of who he might end up taking down with him.

His client list reads like a celebrity who's who, including, most notably, Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner and possibly – according to some admittedly partisan news sources – Bill and Hillary Clinton.

In the end, though, it was a greatly reduced Anthony Pellicano who stood up in federal court in LA on Thursday afternoon and gave a strikingly terse opening statement in his own defence. The six years since his arrest have not been kind to him – he has not seen the outside of a jail cell – although they have been remarkably merciful to Hollywood's big players, only one of whom, a hot-shot lawyer who repeatedly used his services, has been disgraced along with him.

Mr Pellicano, so out of friends and money he has decided to defend himself, told the court he was in the business of "problem-solving" and finding information for his clients, no more and no less. When the judge pressed him to tell the jury what the evidence would show in his favour, he answered elliptically: "The evidence will show what it shows."

That was a distinctly anaemic response to the blistering opening statement by the federal proscutor, US Attorney Kevin Lally, who described a man stripped of personal morality who was willing to break innumerable privacy laws, scare people and charge top prices to ensure his clients wriggled out of trouble with the law, or prevailed over their business rivals, or got the child custody arrangement they were looking for.

"This is a case about corruption in some of society's most fundamental institutions ... corruption fueled by greed," Mr Lally said. "And at the centre of this corruption was Anthony Pellicano."

Mr Pellicano's co-defendants include a former sergeant who was paid at least $180,000 to tap into confidential police records on his clients' enemies, a telephone company worker who set up a wiretapping system for him and a technical whizz who invented a custom-made digital recording system loaded with Mission Impossible-style self-destruct mechanisms in case of discovery. The password for this system was "omerta" – the Sicilian word to denote Cosa Nostra's code of silence.

The beauty of the case, as far as the government is concerned, is that Mr Pellicano essentially incriminates himself in the phone transcripts. "You will learn," Prosecutor Lally said, "that Mr Pellicano was the biggest government informant in this case."

For at least 15 years, Mr Pellicano seemed untouchable. That will now be put to the test.