The FBI's investigation into a Hollywood paparazzi agency is focusing on whether the firm's co-owner tapped into Us Weekly's e-mail system to steal scoops about such stars as Nick Lachey, Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen, sources familiar with the case said.
Us Weekly staff told the FBI they began getting suspicious a few months ago when they noticed several of their celebrity gossip items, which they thought the magazine had exclusively, started showing up in other publications, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They called the FBI in March and locked down the computer system after an Us reporter discovered that someone she was trying to interview knew about an e-mail exchange she just had with an editor using the magazine's computer system, the sources said.
FBI agents last month served search warrants on the home and office of Jill Ishkanian, a former Us editor who left last year to form Sunset Photo and News.
Ishkanian's attorney, Glenn Feldman, told The Times on Monday that his client had access to the Us e-mail system after leaving the magazine, but that management had approved the arrangement.
Ishkanian continued to work as a freelancer for the magazine and used the password of an Us reporter, Amy Sultan, to get into the network, Feldman said.
"The password for Amy Sultan was given to a lot of people," he said. "Jill and other people outside, including an independent photographer, had it." Feldman said Sunset Photo has provided that information and documentation to the FBI, including details that West Coast Executive Editor Ken Baker authorized Ishkanian's access. He noted that the magazine didn't change Sultan's password even though they knew Ishkanian had it.
Ishkanian stopped her association with Us Weekly in February, and Feldman suggested that the editors there were jealous because she has scooped the magazine on stories since then, including several involving the romantic travails of Sheen, his estranged wife Richards, rock star Richie Sambora and his estranged wife, actress Heather Locklear.
Us Weekly spokesman Ed Tagliaferri said the magazine won't comment on the investigation.
A source familiar with the allegations said that Us Weekly began worrying about a possible leak in January, when the magazine got a tip that singer Nick Lachey was romantically linked to Elizabeth Ann Arnold, a former Miss Kentucky USA. Reporters and editors exchanged e-mails about the tip, the source said, and an Us photographer was dispatched to the pair's location. But when he got there, Sunset Photo was already at the scene, the source said.
The same source said Us editors became more concerned after a reporter sent an editor an e-mail about a Hollywood figure whose name has frequently appeared in the magazine's pages. A short time later, the reporter called the Hollywood figure, who repeated parts of the e-mail back to the reporter, the source said.
Ishkanian formed Sunset Photo and News last fall with financial backing from Fraser Ross, owner of Kitson boutique, a thriving celebrity emporium on Robertson Boulevard.
Feldman said that the May 23 FBI search was limited to files and documents related to Ishkanian and Us Weekly, stressing that Sunset Photo is not the target of the investigation. The computers taken have since been returned, he said.
Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman, said the Los Angeles office did search Ishkanian's home and photo business as part of an ongoing investigation. But because the warrants remain under seal, the agency won't provide further details, she said.