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Casino mogul takes stand in trial

Kirk Kerkorian testifies that he wasn't aware of any plan by Anthony Pellicano to wiretap Kerkorian's ex-wife.

August 21, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer

Billionaire investor and casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian testified Wednesday that he had no knowledge of any illegal wiretap targeting his former wife during his bitter child support battle with her six years ago.

Kerkorian, who rarely speaks in public and is known for shunning publicity, was called to the stand by defense attorneys in the criminal trial of his longtime lawyer and friend Terry Christensen.

Christensen, a prominent Century City attorney and member of Kerkorian's small circle of devoted loyalists, is on trial in federal district court alongside private investigator Anthony Pellicano. Each man faces two felony counts in connection with the alleged wiretapping of Kerkorian's former wife during the couple's heated legal fight over her demands for a steep increase in child support for her then 4-year-old child.

The 91-year-old Kerkorian, who wore a blue blazer and red tie, had to ask attorneys to speak up a couple of times when they asked him questions. He called Christensen, whom he has known 35 years, an "honest" and "true" friend.

Kerkorian's testimony was brief -- about 30 minutes -- and fairly unremarkable.

But those close to Kerkorian said the fact that the man who chooses to avoid the limelight testified for Christensen's defense, revisiting an embarrassing chapter in his life, was a testament to his friendship with the attorney.

"This isn't the kind of exposure that he looks for," said Alex Yemenidjian, the former head of MGM studios and a longtime Kerkorian friend, of Wednesday's testimony. "I think it's unquestionable, his loyalty to Terry is evident."

Kerkorian's friends said the investor is less a recluse, as he is often described, than a man who prefers to spend time with a tight circle of friends. He would never sit at the head of a table or in the front row at fights in his Las Vegas hotels, because he chooses not to draw attention to himself, friends said.

"He's a private person," said Burton Cohen, a former casino executive and a friend of Kerkorian's for more than three decades. "He's not an egomaniac; he puts his pants on one leg at a time just as I do."

On Wednesday, shortly after Kerkorian was sworn in, Christensen's attorney, Patricia Glaser, asked him to summarize his "personal background."

"How far down?" Kerkorian replied, eliciting laughs from jurors.

"You have two minutes," the judge said, which again prompted jurors and members of the audience to chuckle.

With that, Kerkorian, speaking slowly in a deep voice, condensed a legendary business career into a few sentences: He said he dropped out of school in the seventh grade, flew planes in the military, started an airline and went into other business ventures, which included casinos, automobile manufacturing and oil.

He touched only briefly on his litigation with Lisa Bonder Kerkorian, a former tennis pro who is almost 50 years his junior.

He said he knew nothing about Bonder Kerkorian being wiretapped.

A judge barred prosecutors from asking about conversations between Kerkorian and Christensen on what Pellicano was doing in the child support case. Both Kerkorian's and Christensen's attorneys had argued that those were privileged legal conversations between a lawyer and client.

Kerkorian drew widespread media attention during the court battle with Bonder Kerkorian that included her financial demands, his charge that she had defrauded him into believing that he was the biological father of her daughter, and the revelation that the girl had, in fact, been fathered by Hollywood producer Steve Bing.

Kerkorian testified that he had wanted to know at the time who the biological father of Bonder Kerkorian's daughter was. A security guard working for Kerkorian later took dental floss from Bing's trash for a DNA test, confirming his paternity, Bing said in court papers.

Prosecutors allege that Christensen hired Pellicano to wiretap Bonder Kerkorian -- who was asking for $320,000 a month in child support -- in an effort to gain an edge in the case. In court, Christensen's defense attorneys have suggested that Pellicano, who also did work for Bing, could have altered the more than six hours of phone conversations he recorded between himself and Christensen.

Christensen's attorneys have denied that their client had any knowledge that Pellicano was conducting wiretaps. They contend that the private investigator was hired because Bonder Kerkorian was threatening to harm Kerkorian and the child. They have also suggested that Pellicano could have been obtaining his information from sources other than wiretaps.

Prosecutors say the tapes show that Christensen was aware of the wiretap and directed Pellicano to listen for specific information, including litigation strategy. Prosecutors do not have any of the actual wiretapped calls, which defense attorneys contend is a telling lack of evidence.

Christensen's attorneys rested their defense Wednesday. Pellicano, who is representing himself, then started his defense. He is expected to continue calling witnesses today.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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