The case began with a dead fish and a rose in an aluminum pan, left on the hood of a car parked on a Los Angeles street. Taped to the windshield of the car, which belonged to a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, was a piece of cardboard with a single word: "Stop."
The discovery in June last year -- for which an ex-convict was later arrested -- unleashed a chain of events that has suddenly entwined many of the Hollywood elite and threatens to turn into the kind of scandal that the show-business world has not faced in decades. Managers, actors, businessmen and lawyers are now being questioned, and in some cases subpoenaed, by the federal government in a widening grand jury investigation of suspected illegal wiretapping that has moved beyond Los Angeles to New York, according to entertainers, producers, attorneys and others involved in the inquiry.
At issue are the contents of what federal investigators have told potential witnesses are wiretap transcripts found on the computer of Anthony Pellicano, a well-known private investigator who has worked for some of Hollywood's top celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone and Roseanne Barr. The transcripts were among a huge trove of computer files discovered in an FBI raid last year of Pellicano's Sunset Boulevard office in connection with the threat against the reporter, Anita Busch. The grand jury investigation is now seeking to unravel the details of the wiretapping and whether prominent lawyers or their clients had hired Pellicano to do it.
It remains unclear how much information the government has about Pellicano's actions and whether the lawyers and clients who retained the private investigator knew of any wiretapping. Still, at virtually every movie premiere, in studio commissaries, over lunch at The Grill and at other show-business hangouts, the investigation, and who is being called before the grand jury, have become the major topic of discussion. Among those who have been called by the FBI was the comedian Garry Shandling, who said in a recent interview that an FBI agent had informed him that he had been wiretapped.
Word of the investigation had been percolating through Hollywood for some time. But the vague speculation turned specific last week after one of Hollywood's most prominent lawyers, Bert Fields, told the entertainment trade journal Variety that he had been questioned by the FBI. It was the first time anyone who had spoken to the FBI as part of the investigation had identified himself. Over the years, Fields' client list has included Tom Cruise, John Travolta, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Jackson. Fields and his law firm have long used Pellicano as a private investigator.
In a telephone interview, Fields said there was "no question" that the FBI was seeking information about Pellicano.
"That's what they were questioning me about," said Fields, who has hired a prominent criminal defense lawyer, John Keker. Fields denied any knowledge of wiretapping. "I do not do that, nor did I authorize Anthony Pellicano to do any wiretapping, ever," he said.
Under federal law, conviction for illegal wiretapping may punished with a prison sentence of up to five.
Pellicano's attorney, Donald Re, declined to comment.
According to people who have been questioned by the FBI, the evidence gathered in Pellicano's office led the FBI to look into the possible use of illegal wiretaps in several cases, including the legal and personal battle in 1999 between Shandling and his former manager, Brad Grey. Fields represented Grey in the bitter financial dispute, which was settled before the trial began.