07.30.12

The Case of Mel Gibson’s Ex

Did Los Angeles’s district attorney use his influence to help the actor’s estranged girlfriend?

As any reader of Raymond Chandler will tell you, corruption is as much a part of the L.A. landscape as the transplanted palm trees, the ranch houses disguised as haciendas, and the movie-star impersonators who pose for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard and then demand 10 bucks. It’s the noir that gives this sun-bleached city its shadows, allowing the famous and powerful and those who dine with them to slip by unnoticed when they doff their ethics like a five-dollar-hooker’s fishnets.

It’s against this backdrop of privilege and rot that the case of Mel Gibson and his estranged former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva has taken an unexpected twist. Tabloid readers will remember the details better than what they ate for breakfast: the ugly custody battle over their daughter Lucia, Grigorieva’s claims that Gibson punched her in the face and knocked out her front teeth, and the audiotapes of the seemingly unhinged actor snarling a blue streak and accusing the Russian singer of gold-digging him all the way to the poorhouse.

Now come accusations from Gibson’s representatives and witnesses to the events, as well as sources inside the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, that D.A. Steve Cooley may have used his influence to help Grigorieva in her battle against Gibson. Cooley, who has faced repeated criticism for his alleged reluctance to prosecute friends and political allies, has had a longtime association with Grigorieva’s former attorney, Eric George. Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the D.A.’s office, says allegations that Cooley gave preferential treatment to George are “a ridiculous allegation and fundamentally untrue.” Cooley himself declined to comment for this story.

After Gibson’s tirade was published on the website Radaronline.com, the D.A.’s office began two separate investigations in July 2010: one into Grigorieva’s claims of domestic abuse, and the other into Gibson’s allegations that Grigorieva was trying to extort him and released the audiotapes when he wouldn’t fork over more money for child support. Ultimately, on March 11, 2011, Cooley’s office charged Gibson with misdemeanor battery, but did not charge Grigorieva with extortion. Gibson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery, without admitting guilt.

Yet even as his office was looking into Gibson’s allegations of extortion, Cooley was getting financial help from Grigorieva’s attorney in his 2010 race for California attorney general, a bid he ultimately lost to Kamala Harris. George hosted a fundraiser for the D.A. in his Beverly Hills home and personally contributed $8,492.00 to Cooley’s run, according to campaign disclosure documents. George’s girlfriend at the time also contributed $3,916; his law partner, Peter Ross, put in $5,000; his client, agent Michael Ovitz, kicked in another $5,000.00; and George’s mentor, former governor Pete Wilson, personally contributed $11,500. Wilson’s law firm donated an additional $14,500 to Cooley’s campaign.

Despite the campaign contributions from Grigorieva’s attorney, Cooley didn’t recuse himself from the extortion investigation. “Campaign contributions have everything to do with the [D.A.’s] prosecution of political figures, or the lack thereof,” says Matthew Monforton, a former deputy district attorney who resigned under protest from the office in 2007 because of what he says was Cooley’s refusal to recognize an alleged conflict of interest in a separate case. Adds one current deputy district attorney, “He’s basically destroyed the office by tanking prosecutions against his buddies.”

Newsweek has learned, however, that despite the decision not to prosecute, the D.A.’s office determined that possible evidence of extortion existed. “There is no question there was admissible evidence of extortion,” John Lynch, who was deputy district attorney on the Gibson/Grigorieva case and is now retired, tells Newsweek. The problem, however, was whether the D.A. could get a jury to convict, Lynch says, because of the choice to break the case into two separate investigations, which would have led to two separate trials. “As a practical matter, you have to choose between the two cases. In the one case of domestic abuse, the victim could potentially be a defendant in the other case of extortion. If we’d filed an extortion charge against Ms. Grigorieva and tried to call her as a witness in the domestic abuse case, no defense attorney on the planet would allow her to answer questions.”

Mel Gibson says “It doesn’t surprise me that there is evidence of extortion in the [case] file, because I know it occurred. What is disturbing is that nobody did anything about it.”

Central to the extortion claims were the tapes of Gibson’s expletive-filled calls to Grigorieva. The existence of those tapes emerged during settlement negotiations between Gibson and Grigorieva over how much financial support the actor would provide for their daughter. George even told Gibson’s lawyers during an initial settlement meeting that while he couldn’t disclose the exact nature of the evidence he possessed, they should know that “it would ruin his [Gibson’s] career if this got out,” according to documents reviewed by Newsweek and eyewitness accounts of the settlement meeting.

At the meeting, George stated that “Oksana needed protection” and told Gibson’s lawyers that he had evidence from Grigorieva that he was keeping in a locked safe, according to the accounts of the meeting reviewed by Newsweek. George declined to comment for this story, as did Grigorieva and her representatives.

During a second settlement meeting on March 16, 2010, George and his former law partner, Sonia Lee, played a tape recording by Grigorieva of her and Gibson speaking on the phone, according to the documents and sources present at the meeting. Grigorieva’s attorneys then showed Gibson’s lawyers a picture of her in which the veneers on her two front teeth were missing. George proceeded to demand that Gibson pay at least “$10 million dollars in support” to his client, and allegedly said that if the audiotapes were released, it would have a highly negative impact on Gibson’s career, the sources said. Lee declined to comment for this article.

After one of the audiotapes was played to Gibson’s attorneys, Grigorieva sent an email to the actor that later wound up in the court record: “As far as the audiotapes go, I only played one to my lawyer, because on March 15 [Gibson’s attorney] Michelle [Mulrooney] proposed on ur behalf not a very generous gift for our daughter and there was nothing for me,” Grigorieva wrote in the email, which was reviewed by Newsweek. “My lowers [sic] also told me that [Gibson attorney] Tom Hansen said I wouldn’t get a penny and more importaunly [sic], my lowers warned me that ur lawyers are capable of false fabrication about me in press. . . .” The judge in the case ordered that all copies of the tapes be handed over to the court and placed under seal. But the tapes were then published on Radaronline.

The investigation by the D.A.’s office yielded numerous texts and emails—since reviewed by Newsweek--that demonstrate Grigorieva threatened to publish the audiotapes of Gibson unless he agreed to her settlement demands. One witness told sheriff’s investigators that Grigorieva had her listen to the audiotapes and talked about releasing them if the actor didn’t pay her more money, documents reviewed by the magazine reveal. “I don’t want to have to play the audiotapes, but if I have to, I will. If things don’t work out the way I want them to, I will,” Grigorieva said, according to the witness’s account. “I remember her saying the proposed settlement was ‘nothing,’” the witness recalls. “She called it ‘a miniscule amount. Not enough.’” Detectives also uncovered emails between Grigorieva and George in which the lawyer allegedly told her the best way to get a settlement from Gibson was to keep the actor from seeing his child. One source who was present at the mediation says he had concerns about what was occurring and went out of his way to warn George that he was potentially engaging in extortion.

After more negotiations, the parties reached an agreement that would have provided Grigorieva and daughter Lucia with a $15 million settlement, to be paid over several years until Lucia’s 18th birthday, according to lawyers for both sides. But Grigorieva later rejected the agreement, without informing George, and retained another lawyer to seek a temporary restraining order against Gibson in hopes of getting a bigger settlement, according to sources familiar with the talks. Grigorieva ultimately settled her custody battle with Gibson for a tiered payment of $750,000 and $20,000.00 per month in child support, according to these sources.

The lead investigator, Sheriff’s Detective Rod Wagner, refused to sign off on the district attorney’s decision not to charge Grigorieva with extortion, and sent a memo to the district attorney’s office stating that he clearly believed extortion had been committed. Gibbons, the D.A. spokeswoman, characterized Wagner’s statements as “his opinion,” and noted that Wagner is not an attorney. Contacted by phone, Detective Wagner refused to comment on those proceedings or anything involving the Gibson case.

Lynch, the retired deputy district attorney on the investigation, says that he and Cooley ultimately made the right decision not to charge Grigorieva with extortion, because of the difficulty of winning. But he also stresses that the ultimate decision was Cooley’s, not his. “If Cooley didn’t approve the decision, it wouldn’t have been made.” Gibbons, the D.A. spokeswoman, says, “Mr. Cooley was briefed and agreed with the decision presented by the legal staff that reviewed the case. But he is the District Attorney and the buck stops with him. If he disagrees with a filing decision, he’ll say so. In this instance, he was briefed and agreed with the decisions brought forth by Mr. Lynch that was presented at the meetings in our office.”

Cooley has decided not to seek a fourth term as D.A. and will be leaving office after the November election. But his critics say they fear his legacy will live on. He has endorsed his loyal lieutenant, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jackie Lacey, in her race to become his replacement, despite strong criticism of her from the deputy district attorney’s union. The enmity between the union and Lacey stems from her testimony at hearings of the city’s Employee Relations Committee into Cooley’s efforts to break up the Association of Deputy District Attorneys. According to transcripts from the hearings reviewed by Newsweek, Lacey originally testified that Cooley had threatened a deputy district attorney regarding his intention to join the union and then later claimed that she’d answered incorrectly because of low blood sugar. Lacey did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Cooley is currently prohibited under a federal court injunction from engaging in anti-union activities, and sources tell Newsweek that the FBI has begun questioning D.A. employees who complained of corruption and political favoritism in the D.A.’s office following Cooley’s campaign against the union. (Gibbons says “we are unaware of any such activity by the FBI”). Says former deputy D.A. Monforton, who now represents the union in its lawsuit against the D.A.’s office and L.A. County stemming from the union-busting allegations: “The only reason Cooley is supporting Lacey for district attorney is to insure a successor who will cover his tracks.” Attorney Brian Hershman, who is representing Cooley and the county in the union lawsuit, says that the complaint is without merit and was “filed by a handful of deputy district attorneys out of more than a thousand who report to Mr. Cooley, and he has widespread support from the vast majority of staff and deputy district attorneys.”