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The Wall Street Journal: Detectives Often Take the Heat If Things Sour

(This article is posted in view of (1) the admittance by Royal Dutch Shell and its lawyers of its use of undercover agents against perceived enemies including Greenpeace, The Body Shop and the owners of this website, Alfred and John Donovan; (2) the fact that senior Shell directors were until recently also directors and major shareholders in a sinister private intelligence agency which has acted for Shell in respect of the above activities; (3) Shell titled directors were the ultimate spymasters of the private spy firm which has close links with MI6, holding positions as Chairman and President.)


September 8, 2006; Page B1

When private investigators are accused of bad things, the people who hired them — companies, law firms or individuals — often deny that they ordered up illegal or unethical actions. Sometimes, that’s enough to escape criminal or civil liability, even when the investigators themselves are under heavy legal fire.

The question of who is responsible for the actions of a hired private investigator is front and center in the current dust-up over Hewlett-Packard Co.’s probe of boardroom leaks. H-P has acknowledged that “pretexting” — the practice of posing as a person to obtain private phone records or other information about them — was used in an investigation conducted on the company’s behalf by a private investigator. A contractor hired by the investigator performed the pretexting.

In some other cases, the parties that have hired investigators accused of misdeeds have dodged responsibility by denying any knowledge of what the investigators were up to.

The most prominent recent example is the long-running federal probe of Anthony Pellicano, the so-called detective to the stars who for many years was in the employ of a long list of prominent Hollywood attorneys, actors and executives.

Earlier this year, Mr. Pellicano was indicted by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles accusing him of illegal activities including wiretapping and racketeering.

Mr. Pellicano’s indictment has been messy and embarrassing for a number of people in show business — including prominent Hollywood lawyer Bert Fields and executives like former agent Michael Ovitz, both of whom used Mr. Pellicano’s services over the years. But the government hasn’t charged those men, or their firms, and attorneys who have clients involved in the case say it’s languishing.

The probe has snared one prominent attorney who employed Mr. Pellicano: Terry Christensen, a longtime ally of billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. Mr. Christensen was indicted by a grand jury for charges including conspiring to illegally wiretap. He has denied wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office says it doesn’t comment on continuing investigations. Messrs. Fields and Ovitz have repeatedly denied knowledge of any possible illegal conduct by Mr. Pellicano. Mr. Pellicano also denies the charges.

Attorneys don’t all agree on whether a private detective’s transgressions can enmesh an unknowing client in a criminal investigation, civil lawsuit or just an embarrassing situation.

To distance himself from the detectives he hires, New York divorce attorney Norman Sheresky says he won’t allow detectives to tell him how they get the information they provide him. “I don’t want to know that stuff,” he says, “I just want the results.”

Mr. Sheresky has hired detectives to trail his clients’ spouses and even to collect urine from a toilet in an attempt to determine if a woman was pregnant (the attempt failed because water contaminated the sample).

He says he assumes the detectives he hires “follow the rules,” but he acknowledges that the business often operates on a fine line.

Raoul Felder, another well-known divorce attorney, says he hires retired police officers for private detective work because they understand the laws.

“No wiretapping; no getting into computers,” Mr. Felder says. “We tell them it’s gotta be absolutely legal.”

Private investigators can play such a crucial role in legal cases that prominent criminal defense attorney Stanley Arkin formed his own detective agency several years ago, bringing on Jack Devine, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as a partner.

Mr. Arkin prefers to call the business, known as the Arkin Group, an “intelligence agency.”

“If you hire somebody, you’re responsible,” Mr. Arkin says. “If you engage somebody who engages in dirty tricks, there’s a good chance it’ll come back on you.”

Sometimes, the tricks don’t even have to be illegal to cause problems. General Motors Corp. was forced to publicly apologize in the 1960s for hiring a detective to check into Ralph Nader’s background, which turned out to be squeaky clean.

The auto company was responding to the activist’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which charged that the GM Corvair was inherently unsafe.

Still, the long-running government investigation into Mr. Pellicano illustrates the huge challenges prosecutors face in proving a client was aware of the illegal methods a detective may have used.

While many of Mr. Pellicano’s clients and the executives they were working for have been subpoenaed as witnesses in the investigation, only two prominent Hollywood players have been charged: Mr. Christensen and the film director John McTiernan.

Instead, the indictments have mostly focused on a handful of small-time clients and people who allegedly aided Mr. Pellicano in his investigations, including police officers and telephone company employees.

In a number of cases, prosecutors simply charged suspects with perjury, for lying to the grand jury. They included Mr. Pellicano’s ex-girlfriend Sandra Carradine, who pleaded guilty to perjury, and a former SBC Communications Inc. employee who was charged with perjury.

In the case of Mr. McTiernan, prosecutors charged him with making false statements after telling investigators in an interview that he had no knowledge of any wiretapping by Mr. Pellicano. He pleaded guilty.

Other Hollywood attorneys were long rumored to be in the prosecutor’s sights. However, there have been no indictments since April. Fourteen people have been charged in the investigation.

Write to Christina Binkley at [email protected] and Merissa Marr at [email protected]

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