What do Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Don Perata have in common? Each has turned to a private eye for help after being targeted in a high-profile investigation. And each has a connection to a certain private dick from Emeryville.
His name is Eric Mason, and he owns Mason Investigative Group, a small firm at the corner of 61st and Hollis streets in the heart of the city’s work-loft district. One of Mason’s early mentors was San Francisco private investigator Jack Palladino, who gained fame in 1992 when the Clinton presidential campaign paid him $100,000 to keep a lid on “bimbo eruptions” — the campaign’s term for women rumored to have had affairs with the Arkansas governor but who had not yet gone public. Mason, 47, also was one of at least two private investigators hired by the Jackson defense team to discredit the mother of the boy who accused the pop star of child molestation.
Mason’s newest client is Perata, the unquestioned head of the East Bay political machine and target of a federal public corruption probe. Perata has racked up at least $39,000 in bills from Mason’s firm so far this year. Mason specializes in “pre-indictment investigations,” which basically are defense-team probes into what the government is investigating.
The PI is one of a handful of Bay Area private investigators who specialize in this spy vs. spy work. According to interviews with other Bay Area private eyes, a former federal prosecutor, and several defense attorneys, pre-indictment investigations are rising in popularity, especially among those who — like Perata — are known suspects in federal white-collar probes.
Hiring a PI generally is considered a smart move for a defendant. The behind-the-scenes work by Mason and another private investigator were widely credited with helping Jackson gain an acquittal earlier this year. But a closer look at what these guys do provides insight into what Perata’s defense team may be up to. And that the state Senate boss is employing a guy with Mason’s pedigree has drawn speculation in some circles as to whether Perata — generally regarded as the state’s second most powerful politician after the governor — hopes to lean on witnesses who may be inclined to cooperate with the FBI.
Much of what is publicly known about the Perata investigation emerged in the first few weeks and months after federal subpoenas were issued nearly a year ago. Some of those subpoenas, which were obtained by several news organizations, revealed that the FBI was searching for evidence involving not only the state senator, but close friends and family members. Sources familiar with the investigation have said they believe the FBI is investigating whether Perata laundered illegal payoffs through these channels. Agents have searched the homes of Perata, his son Nick Perata, and his former aide and longtime confidante, Lily Hu.
When news of the Perata probe broke last November, it garnered front-page headlines and rocked political circles in the East Bay and Sacramento. But little about the investigation has been revealed since then. Both the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office have been mum, noting that federal law calls for such investigations to be conducted in secret.
Perata has denied any wrongdoing, and he and some of his Democratic supporters have seized on the dearth of new information as evidence that the investigation is just “a political witch hunt” or “a Republican-led conspiracy.” But if Perata’s legal defense fund is any indicator, he and his backers are treating the probe very seriously. According to finance records filed with the Secretary of State, Perata had spent $580,771 on his legal defense as of June 30, although he has yet to be charged with a crime. These bills are being covered by his trusty stable of friends and big-time East Bay donors, among them Alameda developer Ron Cowan, who has donated $50,000; Dublin-based developer and road-builder Ed DeSilva, who gave $25,000; and billboard operator John Foster, who contributed $25,000.
Most of the spending to date has been on law firms. Perata has doled out $428,705 to the firm of Stevens & O’Connell — George O’Connell is the senator’s lead attorney in the case — and $110,712 to Olson, Hagel & Fishburn, which specializes in campaign finance law.
But not all of that money has necessarily gone to lawyers. It is typically law firms — not clients — that hire private investigators. For instance, the Clinton campaign didn’t hire Palladino directly; it paid a Denver law firm to do so. So while Perata has reported spending $39,084 directly on Mason, the total PI tab could conceivably be far more — if his law firms are now making the payments, the overall sum may never be made public.
The secrecy surrounding federal grand juries can turn pre-indictment investigations into little more than a guessing game. In a typical criminal case, the prosecution must disclose all of its evidence to the defense team well in advance of a trial. But the prosecutor in a federal grand jury investigation is actually prohibited by law from revealing its evidence to the defense. That’s where the PI comes in: It’s his job to figure out precisely what the government has on his client. Interviewing the client, the standard first step, may not be especially useful, according to one Bay Area private investigator who has conducted many pre-indictment investigations. “Typically the client says, ‘I don’t know why they’re coming after me; I didn’t do anything,'” said the investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The next step often is investigating the client to discern what he could have been involved in that piqued the government’s interest. “What you try to do as quickly as you can is replicate the government’s case,” the PI said. “You have to find out what the government is thinking.” Usually, that means combing through documents and knocking on doors to find witnesses who have talked to federal investigators. “The FBI often tells witnesses what they’re investigating,” the PI explained. And the law cannot prevent witnesses from sharing their stories. “When people go to the grand jury, they tell people; they talk. They have big mouths,” noted Oakland-based defense attorney Dan Horowitz, who has hired PIs for pre-indictment investigations.
Once private investigators get a grasp of the government’s case, they will look for evidence to exonerate their client, and search for skeletons in the closet of the government’s star witnesses. For the Jackson trial, according to a June Los Angeles Times story, Mason looked into a $150,000 settlement the mother of the accuser had reached with J.C. Penney Co. after she claimed she was sexually assaulted by security guards. The PI’s inquiry led to a defense witness who testified that the mother had confessed to lying about the J.C. Penney incident and had threatened to kill her and her child if she ever told.
Some private eyes, however, reputedly prefer a more hard-nosed approach than simply discrediting witnesses. “Look at the people Clinton hired — what were they hired to do? Lean on people,” the local private investigator said. “It’s the LA style. Look, there’s no question that [Palladino] is a good investigator. But there’s also no question that he has a reputation for leaning on people.”
“Leaning” usually means persuading witnesses that it’s not in their best interest to cooperate with the authorities — without crossing the line into witness tampering. In some cases, simply showing up at someone’s door and identifying yourself as a private investigator who represents a person as powerful as Perata may be enough. Or, in a probe with political overtones, a PI may appeal to a witness’ political beliefs. “One thing I can guarantee you is happening is people are going to be saying, ‘C’mon, Perata is a Democrat; he believes [in] what we do; let’s protect him,” the PI said. “I’m sure a lot of people are being guilt-tripped about that.”
Perata spokesman Jason Kinney said Mason was “absolutely not” engaging in strongarm tactics. “There’s certainly nothing unusual about a legal team hiring an investigator,” he said. “Eric Mason is considered one of the best.”
Although he once worked for Palladino, Mason and his firm have indeed earned a reputation for being above-board. “They’re top-notch,” said Ed Swanson, a prominent San Francisco defense attorney who has employed Mason. “They’ve done a great job; they’re very professional.”
Kinney reiterated the Perata camp’s charge that the government’s case is weak, calling it “a mile wide and an inch deep.” But at least one former assistant US attorney pointed out that the length of the Perata grand jury investigation is no indicator of whether the Teflon Don, as he is sometimes known, will avoid criminal charges. In the federal court system, grand juries typically sit for either twelve or eighteen months. With such a high-profile target, the lawyer noted, the feds almost certainly will choose the longer option — the prosecution will need every minute to ready its witnesses and evidence. Perata’s team, after all, can demand a speedy trial once any indictment is handed up. “Once they indict in this case, they should be ready to go to trial in seventy days,” the ex-prosecutor said.
This veteran prosecutor, who is now a defense attorney, also doubts federal authorities are on a political witch hunt, as Perata has alleged. To target someone as prominent as Perata, impanel a grand jury, search his home and his son’s, and then not file felony charges would be an embarrassment for both the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI, the ex-prosecutor said. What’s more, Perata’s stature makes it unlikely that the federal government would settle for anything less than a felony conviction — no matter what Mason turns up. If true, that would signal the end of Perata’s long political career. “This is going to be a hard case to settle,” the former prosecutor said. “Perata just can’t take a felony.”