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Celebrity Files Now Part of Felony Probe

Officer already faces misconduct charges over alleged improper use of computer data.

June 23, 2003|Wendy Thermos | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Police Department has launched a criminal investigation of an officer accused of using law enforcement computers to secretly investigate celebrities, raising the possibility that others might also be prosecuted, authorities say.

The department previously has focused on charges of administrative misconduct that could result in the suspension or firing of Officer Kelly Chrisman.

Among scores of celebrities whose files Chrisman allegedly accessed were Sharon Stone, Courteney Cox Arquette, Sean Penn, Halle Berry, Meg Ryan, Kobe Bryant, O.J. Simpson, Drew Barrymore, Elle Macpherson and Berry Gordy.

After recent Times articles disclosed information "that was not contained in our file," law enforcement officials shifted their attention to potential felony charges against Chrisman, including selling confidential police data, conspiracy and taking bribes, said Richard Doyle, head of the district attorney's justice integrity unit.

"Bring it on," said Gary Ingemunson, one of Chrisman's attorneys, adding that Chrisman looks forward to proving his innocence. The LAPD's administrative proceeding against Chrisman is flawed, he said, and, in exploring criminal charges, authorities are "desperately looking for another way out."

Chrisman's lead attorney, Christopher A. Darden, did not return phone calls seeking comment. In April Darden denied that his client had sold LAPD data to tabloids.

Two weeks ago LAPD officials asked the U.S. attorney's office to open a federal investigation of the 35-year-old Chrisman, said two law enforcement sources, who requested anonymity.

U.S. attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said his office would not confirm or deny whether a federal probe had been launched. But the sources said possible criminal charges of wire fraud and conspiracy were being reviewed because the case involves use of a computer network and investigators now believe the officer may have sold the material to the National Enquirer or similar publications.

The new developments raise the stakes for others besides Chrisman. Doyle said the possibility of bringing criminal charges against tabloid employees who may have solicited or paid for restricted data has not been ruled out by the district attorney.

Kelli L. Sager, an attorney for several tabloids owned by Florida-based American Media Inc., said she was unaware of any criminal investigation but questioned how her client could be prosecuted.

"I have a hard time seeing any criminal conduct in receiving information, even if the person giving it wasn't supposed to give it to you," she said. American Media is the parent company of several major tabloids, including the National Enquirer, the Globe and the Star.

In April, Enquirer Editor David Perel acknowledged that his publication pays some sources but said his reporters do not buy information from police officers.

The criminal probe marks a change in how authorities are handling the Chrisman case.

In April 2001, the district attorney's office rejected misdemeanor criminal prosecution of Chrisman, saying a one-year statute of limitations had expired for charging him with unauthorized computer access.

Also, the LAPD presented no proof that the officer had profited, Doyle said. Such an allegation is needed for felony prosecution under state law, which has either a time limit of three or four years for filing charges, depending on which statute is invoked.

The LAPD instead filed misconduct charges against Chrisman. Hearings before a three-member board, which meets irregularly, are expected to last through the summer.

Criminal investigators recently began reworking the case and notified Doyle that they expect to present new evidence to him soon.

Doyle said the harder look into Chrisman had been prompted by Times articles, which reported that a former employee of the National Enquirer had said Chrisman was the tabloid's paid "go-to guy" for celebrity information in police files, and that dates when Chrisman ran celebrity names through LAPD computers in some cases correlated closely with events such as arrests or deaths.

Police Lt. Richard Mossler, a defense representative for Chrisman, declined to comment about the case, saying he and the officer have been barred by the LAPD from talking about it.

The Times also reported that Chrisman's phone bills showed frequent calls to an Enquirer reporter. Detectives are analyzing Chrisman's phone activity in relation to the dates and times of his database searches, which are listed in hundreds of pages of audits, said a source close to the investigation.

During the administrative hearings into Chrisman's activities, the LAPD has said Chrisman improperly used department computers to access data on celebrities and sometimes his co-workers and girlfriends. Under department regulations as well as state and federal law, an officer must have an authorized law enforcement purpose for such searches.

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