Private eye's wiretaps embroil Hollywood in a growing scandal

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The Independent US

What began as an inquiry into the unorthodox methods used by Hollywood's best-connected private eye is turning into a criminal investigation threatening to touch some of the most powerful figures in the movie industry.

Anthony Pellicano - private investigator to the likes of Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone and Bill Clinton - is already facing jail for illegal possession of grenades and plastic explosives. Now the spotlight is being shone on some of those who either employed him or whose lawyers used him to dig up dirt on their adversaries. At the heart of the investigation is an undisclosed number of transcripts found on Mr Pellicano's computer when he was arrested a year ago. The transcripts are suspected of being taken from illegal wiretaps of his clients' rivals.

Since the investigation is subject to secret grand jury hearings, the FBI is not officially commenting. But Variety and The New York Times report that the FBI has started calling in Hollywood big shots for questioning.

One of the industry's most prominent entertainment lawyers, Bert Fields, has hired his own criminal defence attorney and has gone on the record to insist he never authorised Mr Pellicano to do anything illegal on his behalf.

Another figure questioned by the FBI is Garry Shandling, star of the TV hit The Larry Sanders Show , who told The New York Times yesterday that he had apparently been wire-tapped. Mr Shandling was involved in a bitter dispute with his manager, Brad Grey, over profits from The Larry Sanders Show . Mr Fields represented Mr Grey in court, and hired Mr Pellicano as an investigator in the case.

For years, Mr Pellicano was a legendary figure in Hollywood, a man who did not blush about resorting to his trusted Louisville Slugger baseball bat when adversaries were not prepared to listen to reason. "I always start out by being a gentleman," he said once. "I use intimidation and fear only when I absolutely have to."

His unorthodox methods got him into serious legal trouble last year after a low-level hoodlum named by an FBI informant said he had intimidated a Los Angeles Times journalist at Mr Pellicano's behest - leaving a dead fish and faded rose on the journalist's car and a message with the one word: "Stop".

The journalist was investigating the actor Steven Seagal and his ties to the mafioso Gambino family - later the subject of a high-profile trial in Brooklyn. And Mr Pellicano was working for Mr Seagal.

The FBI took the hoodlum's confession as sufficient cause to raid Mr Pellicano's ritzy offices on Sunset Boulevard, where they discovered plastic explosive, blasting caps, two unregistered hand grenades, gold bullion, jewellery and $200,000 (£120,000) in cash. They also seized his computers, which is how the suspect transcripts were discovered.

Mr Pellicano pleaded guilty last week to possession of the explosives and grenades and is expected to be jailed next week when he appears in court for sentencing.

It is too soon to know how far-reaching the wire-tapping investigation could be, but industry chatter is already abuzz with the names of the high-profile lawyers and movie stars who used Mr Pellicano - among them Michael Myers, Kevin Costner, Roseanne Barr and others.

Old newspaper and magazine interviews have also hinted at a close relationship between Mr Fields and Mr Pellicano. "Bert gives me an absolute free hand when I'm involved," Mr Pellicano boasted in an interview with Vanity Fair in 1993.

A managing partner at Mr Fields' firm, Norman Levine, told The New York Times yesterday: "Anthony Pellicano never had a free hand to do anything illegal."