Almost 17 months after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about hiring indicted Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano, film director John McTiernan on Monday sought to withdraw his plea on grounds that the government's case relied on inadmissible evidence.
The surprise move surfaced during the scheduled sentencing of the 56-year-old director, whose film credits include "Die Hard" and "Predator."
His effort dovetails with attempts by Pellicano and his co-defendants to derail the government's wiretapping and conspiracy case by attacking the tactics and credibility of its five-year investigation.
For months now, attorneys for Pellicano and his co-defendants, most notably entertainment lawyer Terry Christensen, have accused the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI of misconduct, contending that they used an investigation into a threat against a former Los Angeles Times reporter as a ruse to raid Pellicano's Sunset Strip offices.
Facing a government recommendation that he spend six months in federal prison, McTiernan and his new attorneys seem ready to use similar assertions in arguing that the director should never have been charged.
Appearing before U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer, McTiernan's attorneys asked that the sentencing be postponed at least several more weeks so they could make the case that their client should never have been prosecuted.
The delay, attorney Cornell Price told the judge, would enable the defense to prove that a tape-recording of Pellicano and McTiernan was illegally seized by the government and could not be used as evidence that McTiernan lied when he said he had never hired a private investigator.
Price also asserted that McTiernan's prior counsel had erred in allowing him to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about hiring Pellicano to wiretap veteran film producer Charles Roven in the summer of 2000.
"He is not a legal scholar," Price said of his client. "He is a moviemaker."
While granting a two-week delay in sentencing so she could review the matter, Fischer repeatedly and pointedly questioned McTiernan's attorneys about why their client waited so long to try to withdraw his plea.
"It has been 17 months since this defendant pleaded guilty," Fischer said.
"It is time to get this show on the road," the judge said.
In court papers filed late last week, federal prosecutors Daniel Saunders and Kevin Lally urged the judge to reject McTiernan's bid to delay sentencing and to withdraw his plea.
Devoting two full pages of their court papers to McTiernan's detailed courtroom admission of wrongdoing last April, the prosecutors said that the director had changed his mind only when he learned that he would not necessarily avoid prison.
The prosecutors disclosed in court papers that the government was recommending that McTiernan serve the maximum sentence of six months.
Prosecutors also said in court papers that it became clear this summer that the director "had no intention" of fulfilling his plea agreement obligation to be "truthful with the government."
After the hearing, McTiernan's attorneys said they would provide evidence that the director was essentially entrapped by the lead FBI agent in the case into lying about his use of Pellicano.
Agent Stanley Ornellas, they said, called McTiernan at home in February of last year as the director was having dinner with his family and said he wanted to ask about Pellicano's relationship with well-known Los Angeles divorce attorney Dennis Wasser.
During that conversation, they said, Ornellas began questioning an intoxicated McTiernan about whether he had ever hired Pellicano and McTiernan said he had not.
If the judge allows McTiernan to withdraw his plea, prosecutor Saunders said in court, the government would most likely seek a new indictment and consolidate the director's case with that of Pellicano and five other defendants, whose trial is slated to begin in February.