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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Judge Orders 3 to Be Tried in Brockovich Extortion Case

Hearing: The ex-husband and ex-boyfriend of the now-famous movie subject, along with their lawyer, are accused of conspiracy and demanding $310,000.

September 13, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ex-husband and ex-boyfriend of real-life movie subject Erin Brockovich were ordered Tuesday to stand trial on attempted extortion and conspiracy charges for allegedly demanding $310,000 from Brockovich and her lawyer boss, Ed Masry.

The ruling followed a four-day preliminary hearing in which Masry, 68, testified that he was blackmailed by defendants Shawn Brown, 38, Jorg Halaby, 46, and their Century City lawyer, John Reiner, 52.

Attorneys for the three men suggested Masry was lying and argued that their clients were engaged in a legitimate movie-rights deal after the release of the hit film "Erin Brockovich."

But Ventura County Superior Court Judge James P. Cloninger said there was sufficient evidence to suggest the deal amounted to blackmail.

Without commenting on the facts of the case, Cloninger said he found Masry's account credible and held all three defendants to answer felony charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion.

Cloninger also denied a defense motion to move the case to another county because of pretrial publicity and allegations that prosecutors had baited the case into their jurisdiction through secret wiretaps and a videotaped sting.

After the hearing, defense lawyers expressed disappointment with the rulings but said they were confident they would win at trial.

"It was expected, but unfortunate," said Sheldon Levitin, Halaby's Manhattan Beach attorney.

"The evidence in this case clearly shows that Mr. Reiner committed no crime," Los Angeles attorney Gary Lincenberg said of his client. "He is an innocent man."

Brown, Reiner and Halaby declined comment. They remain free on bail and are scheduled to return to Superior Court on Oct. 3 for a second arraignment.

Prosecutors have described the three men's actions as old-fashioned blackmail, saying the defendants demanded hush money in exchange for not telling tabloids that Brockovich and Masry, the real-life stars of the Hollywood film, were having a sexual relationship.

The alleged extortion plot began when Brown, Brockovich's ex-husband and a Simi Valley resident, told Masry he was upset with the movie.

The film, starring Julia Roberts, tells the story of a down-on-her-luck mother of three whose work on a ground-water pollution case leads to a $333-million settlement by Pacific Gas & Electric for the residents of Hinkley, Calif.

Masry, Brockovich and her ex-boyfriend Halaby are portrayed in the film, and, according to court testimony, all signed lucrative contracts with Universal Pictures. Brown was not portrayed and received no money.

Defense attorneys argued in court this week that Brown, upset at being loosely referenced as an absent father in the film, hired Reiner after seeking Masry's assistance in negotiating a contract with Universal.

Reiner's attorney argued in his closing summation that it was "crystal clear" that Brown had no intention of talking to reporters about his ex-wife. Brown stated as much during an April 18 phone call with Brockovich that was tape-recorded by investigators, Lincenberg said.

He suggested that Masry "chose" to pay off the defendants rather than go to Universal, because he wanted to lure them into an extortion case. He argued that Masry lied to investigators and changed his story to damage the defendants.

"It is sickening for my client to have to sit and tremble in court for this biased revisionism," Lincenberg said.

Levitin argued that the allegations against Halaby, who allegedly joined in the deal with Brown, were absurd. He suggested that Masry had "an ax to grind" against Brockovich's former lovers and concocted the story.

But Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley said the defendants' tape-recorded statements prove that blackmail occurred. Frawley cited one phone call in which Reiner tells Masry: "I'm in a position where Shawn can say some really damaging things about Erin."

The complete contents of those recorded calls were filed under seal with the court. Cloninger unsealed the exhibits Tuesday after granting a motion by Associated Press. The documents are expected to be released in coming days.

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