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Lawyer Guilty in Brockovich Extortion Case

April 03, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A jury Monday convicted Century City lawyer John Reiner of trying to extort $310,000 from Erin Brockovich and her employer, attorney Ed Masry, in exchange for not going to the tabloids with allegations that Brockovich was a bad mother and Masry's lover.

Reiner, 53, could face up to three years in prison when he is sentenced on May 2. The State Bar of California will suspend his license temporarily pending a disciplinary hearing on whether to disbar him, according to an attorney with the organization.

The jury in Ventura County Superior Court deliberated for more than three days.

As the verdict was read about noon, Reiner shook his head. His wife, Donna, burst into tears.

Reiner maintained his innocence as he left the courtroom Monday, despite pleas by his attorney to remain quiet. "I did not commit any extortion or any unlawful action," Reiner told reporters.

Westlake Village attorney Ed Masry said he and Brockovich, the extortion targets, feel sympathy for Reiner's family but are pleased with the jury's decision.

"Ever since we've become celebrities, it seems like every time we turn around somebody is suing us or trying to get money from us," he said. "We've become marked targets."

Brockovich could not be reached for comment.

Reiner and his clients, Brockovich's ex-boyfriend Jorg Halaby and her first husband, Shawn Brown, were arrested in a sting operation April 26 after a two-week investigation by the district attorney's office.

Prosecutors later dropped charges against Brown and Halaby, portrayed in the movie as Brockovich's biker boyfriend, but declined to explain why.

The extortion attempt came shortly after the release of "Erin Brockovich," the Universal Pictures movie that tells the story of a divorced mother of three who helps secure a $333-million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which was accused of polluting a desert town's water. Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for her role as Brockovich.

During the weeklong trial before Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr., prosecutors argued that Reiner and his clients tried to blackmail the legal investigator and her boss in exchange for not going to the tabloids with stories about Brockovich, 40, and Masry.

During tearful testimony, Brockovich said she was disgusted by accusations that she neglected her children. Masry, 68, told jurors that he knew from the start that Reiner was trying to blackmail him. Masry and Brockovich have both denied having a sexual relationship.

Defense attorneys maintained that Reiner was set up by Masry, a high-profile litigator who won a seat on the Thousand Oaks City Council in November. They said Reiner thought he was engaged in a legitimate business deal, and that his clients wanted money from Universal, not Masry.

Masry, Brockovich and Halaby signed lucrative contracts with Universal for rights to their life stories. Brown, however, did not have a contract with the studio and was angry that he was referred to in the film as an absent father, attorneys said.

Outside the courtroom, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Frawley said, "Justice was served. I would sure hope that he never practices law again."

Frawley said the case against Reiner was airtight because nearly every one of his moves was documented. Investigators tape-recorded several conversations between the defendant and Masry, and videotaped Reiner and his clients receiving checks from Brockovich and Masry. "The case was on tape," he said. "It was simple and straightforward."

Defense attorney William Genego said he was disappointed and troubled by the verdict. "I believe it's wrong, and I don't understand how it was reached," he said. "It makes absolutely no sense to me."

While they were deliberating, jurors again watched the videotape of the arrest and had Masry's testimony read to them. They decided that Reiner committed all but one of the 15 acts charged by the prosecution. That one count was based on the first conversation between Reiner and Masry on April 11, when the original threat by Reiner was allegedly made.

Frawley said the jurors obviously concluded that Reiner threatened Masry and Brockovich, even though they decided it was not articulated during that specific conversation.

But Genego said he will probably ask for a new trial because there were no threats alleged in any of the subsequent conversations.

"This raises serious questions about the basis of the jury's verdict," he said. "I don't know how you have [attempted] extortion without that phone call."

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