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Spector's long legal battles may be sapping his fortune

April 08, 2009|Harriet Ryan
  • Phil Spector arrives at L.A. County Superior Court with his wife, Rachelle, at the start of his second criminal trial in the death of Lana Clarkson. Records suggest he has liquidated assets to pay for his defense.
Phil Spector arrives at L.A. County Superior Court with his wife, Rachelle,… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

When Phil Spector was booked for murder in 2003, he was a jet-setting millionaire who stayed in luxury hotel suites, left $450 tips on $13 bar bills and paid cash for a 30-room mansion. Six years later, with the case against him in the hands of a jury for a second time, the famed music producer still flashes trappings of wealth -- bespoke suits, a chauffeured car and a pretty, young wife who walks down the courthouse hallway next to him in designer pumps.

But there is no doubt the lengthy legal battle has drawn down the fortune Spector, 69, amassed by writing and producing some of pop music's catchiest hits.

Since his arrest, he has used the services of at least 11 criminal defense attorneys -- including one who charged $1 million for a year of representation, four private investigators, five paralegals, a jury consultant and a stable of expert witnesses. The bill for those scientific witnesses -- more than $500,000 over the course of a trial and a retrial -- does not include the cost of a handful of other big-name forensic specialists, such as Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht, whom the defense retained but did not call to the stand.

"I doubt there is one-tenth of 1% of people in this country who can afford what Mr. Spector has had to put together so far for his defense," his current lawyer, Doron Weinberg, said.

A verdict in his murder trial will not relieve the financial pressure on Spector. Whatever the jury's decision, he faces a wrongful-death suit by the mother of Lana Clarkson, the actress he is accused of shooting to death in the foyer of his mansion. In civil court, the standard of proof to hold Spector responsible for Clarkson's shooting -- his defense contends it was suicide -- is much lower than in the criminal case where a conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The suit doesn't specify a dollar amount, but a lawyer for Donna Clarkson noted that civil jurors determining the amount of any award are to be guided in part by the quality of the relationship lost.

"Donna and Lana had an extremely close relationship. And Lana was a tremendous source of light and happiness for Donna," said lawyer John Taylor.

An attorney who represents Spector in business matters declined to comment on his financial status. There are indications, however, that he is struggling financially. Records suggest he has liquidated assets as he pays for his defense. Last year, a few months after hiring Weinberg to handle his retrial, Spector borrowed $1.3 million against his Alhambra mansion -- nearly the entire assessed value of the hilltop estate -- according to public records. As his first trial got underway in 2007, he borrowed nearly $800,000 against the residence and a smaller house he owns nearby, records show. And in the run-up to that proceeding, Spector allegedly discussed shopping the publishing rights to some of his music, according to claims contained in a federal suit filed by a former publisher who wanted to be first in line for such a sale.

Some changes at Spector's retrial suggested cost-cutting. The five attorneys who sat at the defense table during the first proceeding were replaced by a single lawyer for the second trial. One bodyguard has been substituted for the trio of hulking men who surrounded Spector and his wife, Rachelle, 28, at the first trial.

Spector's income appears to depend on royalties from an extensive catalog of music he has written and produced over the years. To raise funds, he could sell portions of that songbook, experts said.

"He has an opportunity [to make] a great deal of money if he decides to sell," said Chuck Rubin, the president of Artists Rights Enforcement Corp., a for-profit group that has worked for musicians seeking royalties from Spector.

Copyright records show he holds at least partial rights to more than 200 works, ranging from his chart-topping 1958 hit, "To Know Him Is to Love Him," to "River Deep Mountain High," the 1966 Ike & Tina Turner number that some consider Spector's recording Waterloo.

Experts say Spector is entitled to royalties whenever one of his songs is played on the radio, streamed online, played as background music in a restaurant, downloaded as a ring tone, used in a commercial, covered by a band, sold as sheet music or purchased in CD or MP3 form.

He is also entitled to royalties from movies that feature his music, such as the blockbuster "Dirty Dancing," which includes the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."

Not all the money goes to Spector. A former publisher gets approximately 20% of publishing fees associated with many of his songs, according to a lawyer for the company, ABKCO Music.

BMI, the performance organization that collects radio and other licensing fees, declined to provide data about the value of Spector's songs.

Determining royalties is difficult because licensing fees involve complicated formulas, constantly changing data and private contracts and agreements.

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