After a day of parrying allegations, representatives of Michael Jackson took the offensive again Wednesday, releasing a tape that they say bolsters their contention that the entertainer was the victim of an extortion attempt.
The latest tape records a testy conversation between Jackson's private investigator, Anthony Pellicano, and the former lawyer for the father of a 13-year-old boy allegedly molested by the entertainer. Pellicano said he secretly recorded the conversation Aug. 17, the same day the boy alleged to authorities that he had been sexually abused by Jackson.
For the most part, the taped conversation--complete with bickering and contradicting versions of events--focuses on proposals that had been the subject of earlier conversations. As a result, the two men never directly state the reasons for their negotiations.
Neither Pellicano nor the man he identified to reporters as the father's lawyer, Barry K. Rothman, specifically mentions alleged sexual molestation, nor is blackmail discussed except in a fleeting reference by Pellicano. Rothman does not make any specific threats on the 23-minute tape.
The closest either man comes to acknowledging that some accusatory undercurrent is at the heart of their conversation is when Pellicano says his client "is innocent of any wrongdoing" and Rothman counters that his client "has a different opinion."
The tape was released after statements made Tuesday by a private investigator purporting to represent the family of the alleged victim. The investigator, Ernie Rizzo, insisted that there was never an extortion attempt and alleged that the only offer of money came from Pellicano. Rizzo said the offer was rejected by the family.
The tape, played at a packed news conference Wednesday, quotes Pellicano as saying to Rothman: "I guess I'm correct in assuming your client has rejected the deal?" The lawyer says yes.
"Your offer regarding the development deal for one project only is not acceptable, OK?" Rothman says. "You know what I asked you to do and you can't do it, so what can I tell you?"
Later, Rothman adds: "Make me a better offer. . . . More than one project--that's a better offer."
Knowing that the call is being recorded, Pellicano works hard to provoke responses from Rothman. He repeatedly questions why the father has turned down his offer of a single movie development deal worth $350,000--money that Pellicano says would come "out of Michael's pocket."
Rothman says a single development deal would not be enough to satisfy his client because the boy's father wanted to scale back his dental practice to concentrate on movie projects and spend more time with his son. If that deal falls through, Rothman says, the father would be left in the lurch, having "unwound" his dental practice.
"He doesn't have to unwind the practice," Pellicano responds.
"He does to spend time with (his son)," Rothman says, "which is the essence of why this offer is being made."
In an interview with The Times last week, Pellicano said he offered the money as bait to set up the father on an extortion charge.
Only once on the tape is extortion specifically mentioned, and the issue is raised by Pellicano.
"Listen," the private investigator says, "I've already told you that we think this is an extortion attempt from the beginning. I've already made those statements to you time and time again."
Rothman answers: "You can say that, Anthony, but there's a counterpoint to all of that."
Rothman does not elaborate, and he has refused comment since the scandal unfolded last week. He did not respond to further requests for comment Wednesday.
In recent days, the extortion allegations and their denials have come to dominate the controversy surrounding the investigation of Jackson launched by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services. From the start, Jackson's entourage has argued that the sexual molestation allegations were leveled only after the entertainer rejected a $20-million extortion attempt.
Although Jackson's representatives did not report those allegations to the LAPD at first, Pellicano and Howard Weitzman, Jackson's lawyer, have since met with authorities, and police sources say an extortion probe is under way.
Meanwhile, investigators continue to press ahead with their inquiry into allegations of sexual molestation. The boy and his father have been interviewed by police and prosecutors, say sources close to the probe.
Investigators also are interviewing other youngsters who are close to Jackson. A high-ranking police source has said that videotapes seized from Jackson's house did not produce physical evidence of sexual molestation.
Police also seized thousands of photographs and other possible evidence, which is still under review, sources say.