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Lawyer Convicted in Blackmail Attempt

Courts: Jury finds John Reiner tried to extort $310,000 from Erin Brockovich and her boss, Thousand Oaks Councilman Ed Masry. He may face disbarment, up to four years in prison.

April 03, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Century City lawyer John Reiner was convicted Monday of trying to extort $310,000 from movie heroine Erin Brockovich and her employer Ed Masry in exchange for not going to the tabloids with allegations that she was a bad mother and had an affair with Masry.

Reiner, 53, could face up to four years in state prison for his conviction on felony charges of attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit a crime. He is to be sentenced May 2.

The State Bar of California will suspend Reiner's license pending a disciplinary hearing on whether to disbar him, according to an attorney with the organization.

The seven women and five men of the jury deliberated for more than three days before reaching a verdict at about noon.

Reiner shook his head as the verdict was read in Ventura County Superior Court. His wife, Donna, burst into tears and put her head in her hands.

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.

Speaking from his Westlake Village office Monday afternoon, Masry said he and Brockovich empathize with Reiner's family, but that they were both 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. A deputy district attorney said Monday that he may consider refiling charges against the men after Reiner is sentenced.

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 attempted to blackmail the legal investigator and her boss in exchange for not telling the tabloids that Brockovich, 40, was a bad mother and that she and Masry once had an affair.

Both Brockovich and Masry, 68, 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 that he was engaged in a legitimate business deal, and that his clients wanted money from Universal, not Masry.

Masry, Brockovich and Halaby were depicted in the film and 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 of Reiner's conviction: "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," Frawley said. "It was simple and straightforward."

Defense attorney William Genego said he was disappointed and troubled by the guilty verdict.

"I believe it's wrong, and I don't understand how it was reached," he said.

Jurors decided that Reiner committed all but one of the 15 acts charged by the prosecution. That one count involved a phone call during which Reiner allegedly made his first threat of tabloid interviews.

Genego said 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 extortion without that phone call."

But Frawley said he thinks jurors concluded that Reiner threatened Masry and Brockovich, even though they decided it was not articulated during that first conversation.

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