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FBI Probes Videotaping of Jackson on Jet

Agents seize tapes from Santa Monica charter firm. Judge temporarily bars the company from showing, distributing or selling them.

November 26, 2003|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

Federal authorities initiated a criminal investigation Tuesday into a Santa Monica jet company to determine whether any laws were broken when Michael Jackson and his attorneys were secretly videotaped last week on a private flight from Las Vegas to Santa Barbara, where the entertainer returned to face child molestation charges.

FBI agents, armed with subpoenas, seized videotapes from the offices of XtraJet as a state judge granted Jackson's attorneys a temporary restraining order that forbids the company from selling, distributing or showing the videos taken during the Nov. 21 flight until at least a December hearing.

Meanwhile, Mark Geragos, Jackson's attorney, vowed to come "down like a hammer" on anyone who sought to spread falsehoods about the singer. He said the molestation allegations that were the basis for the singer's arrest were motivated by money.

"Michael Jackson is not going to be abused. Michael Jackson is not going to be slammed. He is not going to be a pinata for every person who has financial motives," Geragos said. "If anyone does not think based upon what has happened so far the true motivation of these charges and these allegations is anything but money and the seeking of money, then they are living in their own Neverland."

In addition to securing a temporary restraining order, Jackson and Geragos filed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against XtraJet, alleging that the videotapes were made without their knowledge, using concealed video equipment. They said company officials sought to sell the tapes of the "attorney-client privilege" meeting on the plane for a six-figure sum to media outlets.

Attorneys for Jackson allege that the taping, both with sound and video, violates California criminal statutes that require that all parties consent to any recording.

"Throughout the flight, plaintiffs were conducting confidential and privileged attorney-client communications," their brief said. "Defendants now seek to profit from the surreptitious recording by peddling it to the highest bidder."

XtraJet officials did not return calls for comment Tuesday. A day earlier, company officials disputed charges that they tried to create a bidding war for the video, saying instead that they were seeking advice from network news officials in confidential meetings about their legal and business options regarding the tapes.

Company officials said they allowed reporters to view the videotapes in an effort to rebut news reports that Jackson had acted erratically on the flight or had asked to flee. Jeffrey Borer, an XtraJet corporate officer, told The Times that several news outlets had expressed interest in buying the tapes but were told that they were not available. He said his firm had explored selling the tapes "as any businessperson would." XtraJet officials Monday said they were investigating to determine who placed the cameras in the plane.

XtraJet, under the temporary restraining order issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Yaffe on Tuesday, is barred from physically altering the plane pending a December hearing.

FBI spokesman Matthew McLaughlin said its Los Angeles division is investigating to determine whether the videotaping violated any federal law.

Though McLaughlin declined further comment, a source close to the investigation said the FBI is attempting to see if the tapes violate a law governing the interception and disclosure of wire, voice or electronic surveillance. On Tuesday morning, the FBI seized tapes after two agents served a subpoena on the Santa Monica Airport offices of the charter jet service that ferried Jackson and others on the day that he surrendered to authorities and was booked.

In a legal declaration, Geragos said he was alerted to the existence of the videos Monday afternoon after receiving calls from news outlets, some of which had seen footage showing his conversations with his client.

Geragos then placed a call to an XtraJet attorney. Geragos said the attorney acknowledged that a videotaping device had been covertly installed in the cabin of the plane and had recorded the interior of the cabin, but that he refused to turn over the tapes.

Meanwhile, Santa Barbara County prosecutors announced that they were delaying the filing of molestation charges against Jackson until the week of Dec. 15. The singer is free on $3-million bail pending a January court appearance. Dist. Atty. Thomas W. Sneddon Jr. in a statement said the delay was to allow for the creation of a Web site on which court-related information in the case would be posted.

An attorney who a decade ago secured a settlement of at least $15 million for a 13-year-old boy who alleged that he was molested by the singer is involved in the current case, sources close to the investigation said.

Those sources said the mother of the boy that Jackson is alleged to have molested last winter approached Los Angeles attorney Larry Feldman in March after she became concerned that the singer had been giving wine to her cancer-stricken son, who had first asked to meet his idol.

At that point she was not aware of any alleged molestation, the source said. But as the boy told of his friendship with Jackson in bits and pieces, Feldman concluded that the boy needed to talk to a therapist, who in June reported alleged sexual abuse by Jackson to police, the source said.

Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Elizabeth Jensen contributed to this story.

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