Chuck Philips’s Letters to a Witness: Merely Suggestive? Or Witness Tampering?
Letters written by a former L.A. Times reporter to a potential witness in the Anthony Pellicano case appear to confirm critics’ charges that the reporter pursued a pro-defense agenda in his coverage of the criminal case against the “private detective to the stars.”
The reporter, Chuck Philips, won the Pulitzer prize in 1999, but was laid off from the paper in 2008 shortly after it was found that a story he wrote was based on forged documents.
Patterico.com has obtained several letters in which Philips attempted to get the witness to agree with a specific scenario that would be favorable to Pellicano. In the letters, Philips stated his opinion that the government had engaged in illegal and dishonest activity — even as Philips was writing purportedly objective news stories examining Pellicano’s arguments that the government had acted illegally.
Philips penned the letters in late 2007. During this time, Philips published a series of stories publicizing Pellicano’s defense theories. Philips covered Pellicano’s criminal case despite the fact that he had used Pellicano as a source since the 1990s, and appeared friendly with Pellicano. The letters, which are revealed for the first time in this blog post, are suggestive and non-objective, if not tantamount to witness tampering.
In the letters, written to prison inmate and potential witness Alexander Proctor, Philips told Proctor that he believed Proctor’s recollections of certain conversations with a government informant “could sink this case” against Pellicano. Philips proposed a specific theory of what might have occurred in those conversations — a scenario that would benefit Pellicano — even as Philips repeatedly reminded Proctor that the conversations in question were not recorded.
The Pellicano saga began in 2002, after former L.A. Times reporter Anita Busch received a dead fish and a rose on her windshield, along with a note saying: “Stop.”
An FBI informant, later identified by The Smoking Gun as Dan Patterson, called Busch to warn her. Patterson subsequently wore a wire for the FBI, and recorded conversations with a drug runner named Alexander Proctor, who claimed that he had been hired by Anthony Pellicano to blow up Busch’s car. The FBI used those conversations as a key basis of a search warrant for Pellicano’s office. Inside, federal agents found explosives and illegally obtained recordings, leading to federal criminal filings against Pellicano for possession of explosives and wiretapping.
Pellicano was a “private investigator to the stars,” and his criminal trial involved a cast of characters including Hollywood’s elite. People like Michael Ovitz and Paramount Pictures chairman Brad Grey were key witnesses.
Close to Anthony Pellicano
Chuck Philips has been criticized over the years for covering the Pellicano criminal proceedings, despite his past association with Pellicano. The New York Times reported this year that Philips “had long experience with Mr. Pellicano as a news source” before Pellicano was prosecuted.
There is evidence that the relationship between Philips and Pellicano ran deeper. Philips attended Pellicano’s wedding, at which he and Pellicano smiled and saluted one another. He also attended Pellicano’s guilty verdict without a pad of paper or pen. In neither case did he file a news story.
Above: Chuck Philips
Above: Anthony Pellicano
News legend Pete Noyes said in June that Philips should have recused himself from reporting on Pellicano’s criminal case. According to Noyes, a reporter should always recuse himself from covering criminal proceedings against a former source.
Coverage favored Pellicano
Not only did Philips fail to recuse himself from reporting on Pellicano’s criminal proceedings, he repeatedly wrote stories supporting Pellicano’s defense theories, and questioning the honesty of federal law enforcement agents. In June 2007, Nikki Finke complained that Philips repeatedly “carrie[d] water for Pellicano’s defense attorneys,” and argued that the paper should have reassigned coverage of the Pellicano case to a different reporter. Finke has written that “in the Pellicano scandal, no journalist has been discrediting the government’s case more than Philips.” In return, Philips got extraordinary access to Pellicano, including an exclusive jailhouse interview.
For the sake of brevity, I have compiled the extensive history of Philips’s slanted coverage of the Pellicano case in a separate page, which you can access here.
In essence, throughout 2007, Philips wrote numerous stories touting claims by Pellicano’s defense team that the federal government had lied in order to obtain a search warrant for Pellicano’s office. Pellicano argued that the FBI had manufactured probable cause to search his office, because he allegedly had evidence damaging to the FBI. If the search warrant were ruled invalid, the case against Pellicano would collapse.
Philips wrote numerous stories laying out a comprehensive set of defense attacks on the search warrant. The articles touted defense arguments attacking the credibility of FBI Agent Stanley Ornellas, who obtained the search warrant, as well as Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Saunders, who prosecuted the Pellicano case. Still, Philips’s articles were purportedly “objective.”
Philips’s letters to Proctor
Even as Philips was writing purportedly “balanced” articles about Special Agent Ornellas and his search warrant in the Los Angeles Times, Philips was disparaging Ornellas and Assistant U.S. Attorney Saunders in letters to a prison inmate. In the letters that Philips wrote to potential witness Proctor, Philips asked Proctor for an interview — but also suggested a factual scenario that would damage the government’s case against Pellicano . . . if Proctor agreed it was true.
In one letter, Philips sets forth his opinion that the government deceived Pellicano, violated his rights, and illegally spied on Pellicano:
Philips added: “It is obvious to me that the government is not being candid about what happened at Anita Busch’s house or why it happened.” Read Philips’s handwritten letter: Page 1 here and Page 2 here.
In several of the letters, Philips presented a particular factual scenario to Proctor — one that would benefit Pellicano’s defense team if Proctor supported it. Namely, Philips suggested that the first person to bring up Pellicano’s name was not Proctor, as the FBI had stated in its search warrant affidavit — but rather Patterson, the FBI informant, acting at the behest of the FBI.
If this suggested scenario were true, it would allow Pellicano to argue that the FBI first brought up Pellicano’s name as part of an attempt to manufacture probable cause to get into Pellicano’s office. This revelation would be devastating to the government’s case. Indeed, in suggesting this scenario to Proctor on page 2 of the same letter quoted above, Philips said that he believed Proctor’s recollection of the details of the conversations could “sink this case.” Philips said: “There are so many questions I have about what happened in the summer and autumn of 2002.” He followed up with this:
This scenario was presented to Proctor in a letter that reminded Proctor that Saunders and Ornellas are “the same officials who charged and prosecuted your [Proctor’s] case.” This effectively reminded Proctor that, if he were to say anything disparaging about Saunders and/or Ornellas, it might help his own case.
In the letters, Philips repeatedly emphasized that the initial exchanges with Patterson, the government snitch, were not recorded. It’s hard to see why this fact was important, if Philips were seeking the truth. But if Philips sought to have Proctor manufacture a false scenario regarding the conversations, it would be helpful to tell Proctor that Proctor could say what he liked . . . without fear of being contradicted by a recording.
In several other letters to Proctor, Philips presented the same specific factual scenario: that the FBI’s snitch was the first person to bring up Pellicano’s name. In these letters, Philips consistently reminded Proctor that the conversation was not recorded. For example, in a letter dated October 24, 2007, Philips said:
(Bottom of page 1)
(Top of page 2)
Read the letter: Page 1 and Page 2.
In another letter, dated November 15, 2007, Philips asked the same question again:
Again, Philips repeatedly reminded Proctor that the conversations were not recorded. In this last letter, Philips also told Proctor that Assistant U.S. Attorney Saunders had called Proctor’s girlfriend a liar. Read the entire letter here.
Here are the other letters obtained by this blog: Philips’s initial handwritten letter to Proctor is here, and a November 24, 2007 letter in which he responds to Proctor’s complaints about his reporting is here.
The letters’ authenticity
This blog cannot reveal the source that provided me with the letters that Philips wrote to Proctor. However, there is evidence to corroborate their authenticity.
I have compiled that evidence in a separate page, which you can read here. In a nutshell, I have obtained letters from several different sources, that Philips wrote to several different prison inmates. In addition to the letters to Proctor, I have obtained letters that Philips wrote to two prison inmates (Roland Campbell and Spencer Bowens) whom he suspected of being involved in a 1994 non-fatal shooting of Tupac Shakur. (See here, here, and here.) Those letters were posted by an anonymous blogger who claimed they originated from the lawyer for Jimmy Rosemond, one of two people that Philips accused of having masterminded the 1994 shooting. The other alleged mastermind was James Sabatino, who also sent me a letter he said was sent to him by Philips. I will publish that letter in a future post.
So I have nine separate letters to four different people, originating from three different sources. The signatures and handwriting are similar; here are some examples:
Signature from letter to Bowens
Signature from second handwritten letter to Proctor
Apparently, when he typed his letters, Philips’s signature was messier:
Signature from letter to Sabatino
Signature from October 24, 2007 letter to Proctor
There are more signatures at the linked page, which also contains examples of handwriting from the letters:
Handwriting on letter to Campbell
Handwriting on initial letter to Proctor
Again, all these letters came from different sources.
The letter Sabatino claimed to have received from Philips had a photocopy of a business card from Philips, along with a cell phone number.
I called that cell phone number and reached Philips on Sunday morning. I introduced myself and said that I wanted to ask him questions about some letters that he had written to various prison inmates. He asked who the inmates were, and I told him. He said: “You’re the guy who’s always ragging on me, right?” I replied that I was simply trying to tell the truth. He said: “Well, I don’t think you’re doing a very good job, but send them to me and I’ll take a look at them.”
I sent Philips copies of all the letters above by e-mail, and left him my phone number. As of the date and time of this post, he has not returned my phone call or responded to my e-mail. He is welcome to contact me at any time to provide his point of view.
Philips’s letters raise several ethical questions.
Why did Philips repeatedly emphasize to Proctor that Proctor’s initial conversations with Patterson, the government snitch, had not been recorded? Did that advance a search for the truth? Why didn’t Philips simply ask Proctor what had happened in the conversations with Patterson, and let Proctor talk — rather than repeatedly suggesting a specific scenario (and only that scenario) and asking Proctor if it was true?
Did Philips handle this in a proper fashion? When a reporter is proposing to interview a man who might be a witness in a criminal trial, and is pursuing the possibility of government misconduct in the case, is it ethical for the reporter to lay out a specific factual scenario of government misconduct, and then ask if it’s true? Did this approach aid a search for the truth?
Reporters seeking interviews obviously try to gain the confidence of the person they want to interview. But is it proper or ethical for a reporter to express opinions in such a clear and unmistakable way, as Philips did in these letters? Is it ethical for a reporter to tell a source that he has taken sides in a controversy, while writing purportedly objective articles about that controversy?
I sent all the letters Philips wrote to Proctor to Kelly McBride, the head of ethics at the Poynter Institute, and asked her the questions I have raised in this post. Ms. McBride replied that she did not feel comfortable addressing this issue without doing substantial independent reporting — and, she said, she did not have the time to do that reporting. I also tried asking Jay Rosen at NYU, who suggested that I simply publish the post and let readers make their own judgment.
So there you have it. The ball is now in your court, members of the reading public. Does Chuck Philips’s approach to his sources, as revealed in the above letters, comport with your idea of journalistic integrity? Did his editors at the Los Angeles Times, including Marc Duvoisin, know this is how he approached his stories? Did they care? Will anyone ask Duvoisin, who still works at the newspaper?
Only time will tell.
UPDATE: Since the publication of this post, Philips has acknowledged to me that he wrote all the letters discussed in this post. He also defended their content. More details will be coming in the next few days.
UPDATE x2: Philips reacts here.