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Book Excerpt: ‘Hollywood Confidential: A True Story of Wiretapping, Friendship, and Betrayal’

A specialist on organized-crime investigations since 1974, best-selling author and independent investigative journalist Dan E. Moldea has published seven nonfiction books including, “The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians and the Mob.” This excerpt is being published with permission.

CHAPTER ONE

“Forget it, Dan. It’s Chinatown”

By Dan E. Moldea

I didn’t see the minefield ahead.

On April 12, 2002, Anita Busch sent an email, asking me for a favor. She wanted me to collect three articles that Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times had written about one-time Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz, two from 1996 and the third from 1999. She provided no explanation, and I didn’t need any. I just did what she asked. Later that day, I sent Anita two of the three articles that she had requested, along with six other stories in which Weinraub had discussed Ovitz. At the time of her email to me, Anita was freelancing for the New York Times. She and Weinraub were in the midst of what would become a seven-part series which began on March 22 about Ovitz and his latest business venture, the Artists Management Group, a broadly based management company for those involved in film and television productions. The two reporters alleged that Ovitz had engaged in financial mismanagement, based on a recent audit of the company’s records.

The final part of their series appeared in the newspaper on May 7.1 The day before that final installation, Anita and Weinraub published a story about Ovitz, “A Faded Hollywood Power Broker Relinquishes His Talent Business,” which seemingly added insult to injury: Even by the turbulent and often cruel standards of Hollywood, Mr. Ovitz’s downfall has been startling. As a founder of the Creative Artists Agency, he emerged as a strong-willed and intimidating figure who sought to inspire fear, and succeeded. But Mr. Ovitz, who is 55, has seen his career fall into a downward spiral since 1997 when he was fired as president of the Walt Disney Company.

Today, Mr. Ovitz reached one of the lowest points in his career. He agreed for a company called The Firm to acquire the major units of his current company, the Artists Management Group. . . . For Mr. Ovitz, the deal is a serious financial and personal blow. 2 In lieu of continuing to freelance for the New York Times and other publications upon the completion of her work on Ovitz, Anita accepted a job on or about May 21, working under contract for the Los Angeles Times. On June 3, her first day with the newspaper, Hollywood legend Lew Wasserman, the retired chairman of MCA, died. As part of her research, she called me to discuss my third book, Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob, in which Wasserman was a major character. In that 1986 work, I concentrated on MCA, a powerful Hollywood corporation, and its fiftyyear relationship with President Reagan who was in the midst of his second term in office.

During the next two years, I watched the Reagan Justice Department, specifically the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, kill a federal investigation of MCA, as well as another broader probe of the Mafia’s penetration of the motion-picture industry. With life imitating art, these cases were embodiments of the dramatic conclusion of the 1974 film, Chinatown, in which wealthy powerbrokers used their influence with the law-enforcement community to evade responsibility for their roles in major crimes. In fact, one federal prosecutor placed a fine point on this analogy when—after hearing of my frustrations with reporting on the aborted MCA case—he told me, “Forget it, Dan. It’s Chinatown.” The newspaper’s obituary of Wasserman the following day referred to my work.

Dan Moldea (Photo credit: E. Ethelbert Miller)

On June 4, federal prosecutors indicted Julius “Jules” Nasso, along with sixteen reputed members of New York’s Carlo Gambino crime family as part of a major 68-count conspiracy case.

Nasso had been the business partner of motion-picture star Steven Seagal, whose popular action-adventure films included Above the Law, Out for Justice, and Under Siege. In effect, Anita, who usually covered show business, was now investigating the Mafia. Her partner for this investigation was Paul Lieberman, a respected veteran investigative reporter who worked in the New York bureau of the Los Angeles Times. The first Busch-Lieberman story appeared on June 5, stating: Nasso, 49, of Staten Island, was charged with two counts, conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion of a figure in the motion picture industry.

Although prosecutors did not identify the extortion target in the indictment, Nasso’s lawyer said after court that Seagal is the film figure. “It’s definitely Steven Seagal,” said Nasso’s lead attorney, Barry Levin. “Steven Seagal has been seen talking to the grand jury.” Nasso had a 15-year business relationship with Seagal until a bitter falling-out. In March, Nasso filed a $60-million lawsuit against the actor, alleging the star of such films as Under Siege had backed out of a contract to perform in four movies. The two have not spoken in more than a year.”

In her follow-up article the next day, Anita, without the participation of Lieberman, wrote: “The alleged extortion attempt was caught on FBI wiretaps. The wiretaps recorded a conversation between Nasso and Gambino associate Anthony ‘Sonny’ Ciccone in which Ciccone 3 allegedly chastised Nasso for trying to share some of the extorted money with others without ‘prior approval.’”

Anita and Lieberman co-authored a third story on June 12, adding: “The Mafia captain who rules the Staten Island waterfront threatened to kill an entertainment figure, identified previously as actor Steven Seagal, as part of a multimillion-dollar extortion scene. . . . “Anthony ‘Sonny’ Ciccone ‘demanded millions of dollars from this individual and threatened his life,’ Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Genser said at a court hearing for the accused Gambino family docks boss.”6 However, Anita did not appear to trust her partner. In her personal notes, she wrote: I am sharing information with the reporter I’m working with, Paul Lieberman. But something doesn’t smell right. Lieberman is too close to these guys, I believe. He’s going out drinking with them.

Read more »

Mueller’s Potential Obstruction of Justice Case Against Trump Hones in on Fiery Relationship with AG Sessions

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in November 2017.

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

Donald Trump’s public humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has caught the attention of the special counsel team investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice.

Special counsel Robert Mueller is honing in on a period of time last summer when Trump reportedly met privately with his advisers to discuss replacing Sessions, whose recusal from the Russian probe has infuriated the president. To some in Trump’s inner circle, removing Sessions would make it easier to fire Mueller III, whose fate ultimately is determined by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The authority to fire Rosenstein, a move that could help the president fire Mueller, belongs to Sessions, not Trump. 

Trump has publicly berated Sessions for recusing himself. If Sessions quit, Trump could replace him with someone willing to fire Mueller, who so far has gained indictments against four former Trump aides, a prominent attorney, 13 Russians and three Russian groups.

As Mueller builds an obstruction of justice case against the president, prosecutors are especially interested in the discussions between Trump and others about removing Sessions – a move that could be seen as an attempt to intervene in the probe, the Washington Post reported

Mueller’s team has questioned witnesses in recent months about those discussions and Trump’s state of mind in late July and early August of last year. Around the same time, Trump belittled Sessions on Twitter, calling him a “beleaguered” attorney general.

Hours before the Washington Post broke the story Wednesday about Mueller’s interest in any attempts to remove Sessions, Trump lashed out at the attorney general again on Twitter over the handling of Republican claims of misconduct in the FBI: “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”

A little over a week ago, Trump blasted Sessions again over the president’s calls for an investigation into the Obama administration. 

Mueller was appointed on May 17, 2017, to investigate Russian interference in the election. Eight days earlier, Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, who told Congress he rebuffed the president’s request to drop an investigation of his former campaign aide and national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has since been indicted on charges tied to the Mueller investigation.

Since then, Mueller’s team has been investigating whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey for failing to stop a federal investigation.

On Wednesday, Sessions responded to Trump’s criticisms about the Justice Department’s handling of Republican allegations that the FBI and DOJ inappropriately obtained a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide who was suspected of being a Russian operative.

In an unusual public statement, Sessions responded, “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”

Trump’s Ex-Campaign Chairman Manafort Faces Sept. 17 Trial After Pleading Not Guilty

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is facing the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison on numerous charges related to his business dealing in eastern Europe, pleaded not guilty in federal court Wednesday and is scheduled for a trial beginning Sept. 17.

Unless Manafort strikes a deal with prosecutors, the former high-paid political consultant is expected to face the first trial to emerge from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to undermine the 2016 presidential election.

Manafort’s longtime business partner, Rick Gates, is among three former Trump aides who have pleaded guilty to assortment of charges and have agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s team of prosecutors. Gates, who also served on Trump’s campaign, is expected to provide information about crimes he said he and Manafort committed as business partners.

Gates and Manafort were both charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, tax fraud and money laundering stemming from lobbying and consulting work related to Ukrainian politicians who are strong allies of Russia.

Because of his age, Manafort could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

On Friday, Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy to conceal tens of millions of dollars while working with Manafort.

The indictments do not mention work they did for Trump’s campaign, but Gates and Manafort played a prominent role in the campaign and have drawn suspicion because of their ties with pro-Russian factions in eastern Europe.

Last week, the men’s Russian-connected attorney Alex Van der Zwaan was charged with misleading the FBI about work he did for Manafort and Gates. 

About two weeks ago, 13 Russians were charged in a sweeping indictment alleging they waged a propaganda campaign to help Trump get elected. 

The other former Trump associates who have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors are Trump’s former national security adviser Mike Flynn and ex-campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.

In March 2017, Mueller was appointed to investigate Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, the former FBI director has broadened the scope of the probe to include Trump’s business dealings https://www.ticklethewire.com/2018/02/28/special-counsels-probe-focuses-trumps-business-ties-prior-presidential-run/ and his firing of then-FBI Director James Comey.

Trump, who suggested Russian election meddling was “a hoax” peddled by the “fake media,” claims the special counsel probe is a “witch hunt” by the upper ranks of the FBI and Justice Department to bring him down.

His attorneys are trying to find a legal argument to prevent Trump from being interviewed by Mueller because they fear he will lie and commit perjury.

Hope Hicks Refuses to Answer Questions in Congressional Probe of Russian Interference

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

White House communications director Hope Hicks became the latest former or current Trump aide to refuse to answer questions about the Trump administration as part of a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Saying she was acting on instructions from the White House, Trump’s longtime political aide declined many questions in a closed-door sessions of the House Intelligence Committee.

But under pressure, Hicks answered some questions about the tradition period, committee members told the Washington Post.

Hicks, the White House communications director who served as the spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, is considered a key witness because of her longstanding relationship with the president and his family.

“No one’s asserting privilege; they’re following the orders of the White House not to answer certain questions,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill, said after the interview.

“There’s no hope to get all our answers,” he added.

Democrats failed to get the GOP-led committee to serve Hick with a subpoena like was done with former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who also refused to answer questions.

“There’s apparently one rule for Steve Bannon and another rule for everyone else,” the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), complained after the interview.

Other Stories of Interest

Special Counsel’s Probe Focuses on Trump’s Business Ties Prior to Presidential Run

President Trump, via the White House

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

Donald Trump’s business ties to Russia before he ran for president has come under the scope of the widening special counsel investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to help get him elected.

Witnesses in the probe are repeatedly being asked about when Trump decided to run, whether Russia has compromising information on the president and why efforts to brand a Trump Tower in Moscow fizzled, CNN reported

Mueller’s prosecutors are trying to determine whether Russians sought to influence Trump when he was negotiating business deals with Russia and considering a run for president. Several of Trump’s former campaign and administration aides have already been indicted and at least three have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Some of the questions are focused on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which Trump partnered with Russian property magnate Aras Agalarov and his son Emin Agalarov.

Emin’s publicist Rob Goldstone set up a meeting between Russian officials offering “dirt” on Russia and Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law Jared Kushner and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has been indicted on numerous fraud and money laundering charges.

Investigators appear to be looking into allegations in a former British spy’s dossier that claims Russia had compromising information on Trump, making him vulnerable to blackmail.

Jill Sanborn, a Veteran Counterterrorism Expert, to Head FBI’s Minneapolis Division

FBI Special Agent Jill Sanborn.

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

Jill Sanborn, a veteran counterterrorism agent who led the FBI’s investigation of the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2015, has been named special agent in charge of the bureau’s Minneapolis division.

Sanborn will replace Richard Thornton, who is retiring today after leading the Minneapolis office since 2014, when she reports to the office in April.

The Minneapolis office covers Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“Minnesota and the Dakotas have such rich and diverse cultural and economic reputations and I look forward to getting to work with law enforcement, business, and community leaders to partner in keeping those sectors safe and secure,” Sanborn told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. 

Sanborn began her career as a special agent with the FBI in 1998, when she was assigned to the Phoenix office to investigate fraud and computer intrusions. For most of her nearly 20-year career, Sanborn has been involved in counterterrorism operations, holding leadership positions in the Washington Field Office and the Los Angels Field Office.

NSA Head Testifies Trump Failed to Order Action to Combat Russian Meddling

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the NSA and military’s Cyber Command

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

A top U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers Tuesday that President Trump has not ordered his agencies to combat Russia’s continuing inference in the American election process, despite what he called the Kremlin’s “sustained aggression.”

Adm. Michael S. Rogers, head of the National Security Agency and the military’s Cyber Command, said his agencies have not been directed by the White House to counter Russian meddling.

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity,’” Rogers, who plans to retire in April, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

Rogers is the second senior intelligence official this month to warn that Russian interference continues and the Trump administration has failed to adequately combat the propaganda campaign.

After Trump won the election, he suggested Russian meddling was a “hoax” peddled by the fake media, ignoring his own intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Moscow waged a disinformation campaign to further divide Americans on hot-button topics like race, gay rights and immigration.  Earlier this month, 13 Russians were indicted on allegations that they ran an unprecedented smear campaign to help Trump get elected.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed by the Justice Department to investigate Russian interference, is probing whether Trump or his campaign colluded with Moscow to undermine the election.

Trump Aide Hope Hicks to Meet with House Committee Investigating Russia’s Interference

President Trump at the White House, via the White House.

By Steve Neavling
Ticklethewire.com

President Trump’s longtime political aide Hope Hicks is scheduled to testify behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee that is investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Hicks, the White House communications director who served as the spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, is considered a key witness because of her longstanding relationship with the president and his family.

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

It’s not yet clear when she will appear before the committee or what questions she will answer. Her scheduled appearance was first reported by CBS News

The Democrats’ top committee member said he’s hoping Hicks won’t “stonewall” the committee like other current and former White House workers who refused to answer questions.

“We hope obviously that she will be fully cooperative, but at this point I don’t know what we can expect, except that we expect her to come in soon and we hope that she will fully cooperate,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Monday.