The Big Idea

Three Cities, Three Scandals

What Jack Abramoff, Anthony Pellicano, and Jared Paul Stern have in common.

Jack Abramoff

It has been a glorious springtime for scandal. Just after the Abramoff lobbying investigation blossomed in a flurry of guilty pleas in Washington, the Pellicano wiretapping case began budding with Technicolor indictments in Los Angeles. And no sooner did the Hollywood frenzy reach full flower than the disgracefully delicious “Page Fix” revelations bloomed spectacularly in New York City.

There is much symmetry to be found in these three investigations. Washington is the nation’s political capital. Los Angeles is its entertainment capital. New York City is the capital of media and finance. And while the scandals follow different trajectories, each of them reveals much about the mores of the city where it is unfolding. Onlookers enjoying the spectacle can also learn something about what drives these places, what they care about and compete for.

Washington’s scandal is about influence, a commodity bought and sold there as it is nowhere else. The protagonist is Jack Abramoff, a highflying lobbyist who has now been brought to earth and persuaded to plead guilty to three counts, including fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. He is currently cooperating with prosecutors and preparing for prison. The narrative arc is Abramoff’s scheme to gull naive Indian tribes and others innocent about the ways of Washington out of tens of millions of dollars. In attempting to advance his clients’ interests, the lobbyist provided legislators, their staffs, and their families with jobs, campaign contributions, golf junkets, meals at his restaurant, seats at sporting events, and, in some cases, old-fashioned cash.

Much as his former colleagues may try to deny it, Abramoff’s practices were not a departure from the way Washington ordinarily does business, but rather a too-brazen expression of it. Nearly all lobbyists-for-hire brandish their connections at the White House and on Capitol Hill to impress their clients. They grease the skids with campaign donations, favors, and fancy entertainment. Stylistically, they tend to echo Abramoff’s ostentatious religious piety, his humorless self-regard, his regrettable wardrobe choices. Though a horrible cartoon, Abramoff also represents the reality of Bush’s Washington. His distinguishing, fatal error was to draw too much attention to himself while doing on a grander scale what thousands do there every day.

Anthony Pellicano

The scandal in Hollywood, by contrast, is about that community’s currency, deal-making leverage. The leading man is Anthony Pellicano, a thuggish private detective who has been indicted on 110 counts of bribery, conspiracy, racketeering, and illegal wiretapping. The story line is Pellicano bugging celebrities and entertainment-industry figures, including Nicole Kidman (when she was getting divorced from Tom Cruise) on behalf of big shots, such as Michael Ovitz, the founder of the Creative Artists Agency, and Brad Grey, the chairman of Paramount Pictures. Like Abramoff, Pellicano went that extra mile for his clients. At issue in the FBI’s ongoing investigation is whether the agents and studio executives who hired him to gain the upper hand in their various negotiations and lawsuits understood his criminal methods.

Following the Abramoff pattern, Pellicano is more illustration than aberration. It may be far from routine for Hollywood muckety-mucks to sic spies on their enemies or send goons to intimidate prying journalists. But the ruthlessness and aggression that prompted producers, agents, and L.A. lawyers to hire Pellicano are perfectly normal in Hollywood. He was merely a hyperbolic expression of the narcissism and paranoia that characterize the movie mogul’s relentless drive for dominance in pursuit of mediocrity. Pellicano also personifies that industry’s eternal tendency to confuse life and art. He’s a real-life character based on a Mickey Spillane movie: the hot-tempered Chicago gumshoe serving as the studio chief’s strong arm. This time, Hollywood wrote him into its private script.

Jared Paul Stern

In New York, the scandal is about publicity, the coin of the media realm. Its villain is Jared Paul Stern, a foppish gossip columnist for the New York Post’s “Page Six” who seems to have taken the classic 1957 movie The Sweet Smell of Success as a how-to guide rather than a fable of moral degeneracy. The plot climaxes in Stern’s offer, captured on videotape and backed up with e-mail messages, to keep the name of a reclusive supermarket billionaire out of his rag in exchange for $220,000, delivered by wire transfer. No legal charges have yet been filed against Stern, who claims entrapment. Though the publicly released evidence may leave him little alternative, this defense constitutes acknowledgment, at the very least, that he intended to take Ron Burkle’s money.

Stern, too, is a fevered nightmare based in reality. It is surely rare for even the sleaziest hacks to shake down their subjects for protection money. At the same time, Stern exemplifies a tabloid subculture in which such distinctions as true and untrue, journalism and public relations, fame and shame, merge in a boozy blur. His gleeful, “Now I’m really famous!” reaction merely underlines the premise of his believe-it-at-your-own-risk column—previously embodied by such figures as Alfonse D’Amato, Donald Trump, and Paris Hilton—that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Stern simply raised the price of the kind of transaction his colleagues continue to engage in daily, the trading of positive mentions of nightclubs, people, and products for meals, invitations, and gifts. His downfall was pursuing a deal that was too big, too explicit, and too clearly recorded on videotape.

All three men were third-tier players in their respective worlds. In Washington, the principals are the politicians. In L.A., they are the movie stars. In New York, they are the media executives. The real powers-that-be can dismiss the likes of Abramoff, Pellicano, and Stern as greed-addled parasites, which they indeed were. But if all are caricatures, each man also holds up a mirror to the culture in which for a time he flourished, where not just the outrageous but the ordinary carries a whiff of rottenness.