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Judge urged to investigate leaks

Defense attorneys in the Pellicano case say the federal government could be involved in the release of evidence to N.Y. Times reporters.

March 07, 2007|Greg Krikorian and Chuck Philips | Times Staff Writers

Nearly a year after confidential FBI documents in the wiretap and racketeering case of Anthony Pellicano were disclosed, defense attorneys have stepped up their push for a federal judge to independently investigate who leaked the evidence to the New York Times.

Times reporters David M. Halbfinger and Allison Hope Weiner used the reports to write several stories about Hollywood bigwigs, including attorney Bert Fields, former agent Michael Ovitz and others, who have not been charged in the case. Pellicano, once known as the private eye to the stars, and several of his legal and Hollywood clients are accused of eavesdropping on opponents to win advantage in courtroom battles.

The leak investigation has been handled by the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI in San Diego because prosecutors and FBI agents in Los Angeles are among those with access to the compromised evidence.

But in recent weeks, defense lawyers have urged U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, who is hearing the Pellicano criminal case in Los Angeles, to intervene. Defense attorney Terree Bowers, who represents entertainment attorney Terry Christensen, one of Pellicano's co-defendants, has been particularly aggressive, accusing the government of involvement in the leaks.

In recent court papers, Bowers said the New York Times reporters told an unnamed witness that they had received the confidential information from the government before it was turned over to defense attorneys.

Bowers also asserted that lead FBI agent Stan Ornellas told another witness that he had lost some of his notes on the case. If true, Bowers argued, the missing documents could be the source of the leaks. Or Ornellas could have made up the story to set up an alibi against charges that he was the leaker.

Ornellas and prosecutors Daniel Saunders and Kevin Lally have denied responsibility for the leak. Other FBI and Justice Department officials note that anyone who worked on the career-making case for years would be loath to risk it by turning over sealed documents to journalists.

Recent court papers state that federal authorities involved in the case have executed waivers releasing Weiner and Halbfinger from any promises they might have made to remain silent about their contacts with government agents.

In their latest filing, prosecutors also made a not-so-subtle reference to the BALCO case, in which a defense attorney who had accused the government of leaking turned out to be the source for incendiary reports about steroid use by major league baseball players.

"The government notes only that recent events have demonstrated that a defense counsel's unsupported accusations of government misconduct ... should be accorded little if any weight," Saunders and Lally wrote in a footnote to a 26-page motion.

The Pellicano leak investigation is not as well known as the BALCO case or the disclosure of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, which resulted in perjury convictions against former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But it has its own interesting twists, including a separate federal investigation into accusations that Weiner misidentified herself to get in to see Pellicano in prison.

Weiner was permanently barred from any federal prison facility last summer after authorities concluded that she had misrepresented herself as an attorney to see Pellicano.

Weiner, who received a USC law degree 20 years ago, is registered with the California bar but has never done legal work for Pellicano. It is against the law to enter a federal detention center under false pretenses.

Weiner told her superiors at the New York Times that she had informed several jail guards that she was a New York Times reporter. But in December, the San Diego prosecutor and two FBI agents showed prison officials and other witnesses at the detention center a form on which Weiner had written "legal" to describe the purpose of a June 14 visit, sources said.

The prosecution team also played a videotape of Weiner's entry attempt for the officials, sources close to the investigation said.

The New York Times declined to comment on the specifics of either investigation.

"We believe it is critically important for reporters to be able to protect their confidential sources of information," New York Times spokeswoman Diane McNulty said. "And [we] will continue to advocate their ability to do so."

The leak investigation is expected to be discussed at a court hearing in the Pellicano case later this month.

*

greg.krikorian@latimes.com

chuck.philips@latimes.com

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