by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
December 6, 2003
POOH'S GOT A NEW PAL IN DISNEY FEUD: JOHNNY COCHRAN
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 6, 2001 -- The man who freed O.J. Simpson from the clutches of the law in his celebrated murder case will soon go nose-to-nose with the only man who ever prosecuted Simpson successfully - in civil court - for the murders of his wife Nicole and waiter Ron Goldman - in the mutlibillion-dollar suit over royalties and future rights to Winnie the Pooh.
"Tigger and Pooh have a new friend named Cochran," an heir to the Pooh rights, Patricia Slesinger, told The American Reporter Friday. "Yes, it's Johnny."
This latest development, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, comes on the heels of two stunning setbacks for Dinsey: the resignations of Walt Disney's brother Roy Disney, from the company's board of directors, and the resignation of a Roy Disney ally, Stanley Gold, from the board a day later. Roy Disney charged in a letter of resignation that company chairman Michael Eisner had failed the company in seven ways and ought to go, too.
"What Roy speaks of is something we have been living for the past 20 years. They have acted as if they are above the law, breaking promises, ignoring their contractual obligations, destroying evidence, spinning lies to cover up their conduct," Patricia Slesinger told The American Reporter.
"It is endemic throughout the company. It is probably completely unfair to blame Michael because it is a company-wide problem of hubris and greed," she said.
The selection of Cochran, whose million-dollar fee and stunning 1995 defense of the NFL running back catapulted him to global recognition, ends a long search by the Slesinger family for a successor to Hollywood superlawyer Bert Fields, who quit the case without any public explanation in June.
Cochran will square off against Daniel J. Petrocelli, a Notre Dame-trained lawyer who has winfuriated the Slesingers. In a dramatic face-down in the corridors of Los Angeles Federal Court after the Disney attorney claimed that Slesinger investigators had stolen confidential documents about the case from its Burbank offices, Patricia Slesinger angrily challenged Petrocelli and said, "You are the fraud, Mr. Petrocelli. You are the thief."
The American Reporter has learned that two elements each played a role in Fields' departure: the first was a $600,000 legal bill for the month of May, which he told the Slesingers would rise to $800,000 in June due to a torrent of costly motions filed by Disney. Sources say Fields was fired "on the spot" when he delivered the news. Another firm then hired by the Slesingers wanted $1 million a month, family sources said, and was also released.
The second issue was Fields' apparent conflict of interest with respect to a tricky new part of the case involving a former top female executive of Mattel Inc., the giant toymaker, who may offer evidence that Disney and Mattel collaborated to reduce the royalty due the Slesingers on worldwide sales of Winnie the Pooh toys and merchandise in theme parks, Disney Stores and other worldwide venues for the offically licensed products. Fields' apparent conflict stemmed from an earlier Mattel case involving the woman, Michelle Greenwald, a Slesinger family spokesperson said.
"The whistleblower, Michelle Greenwald, was also the Mattel signatory on a Winnie the Pooh agreement between Disney and Mattel and was the key contact person on certain financial arrangements between Disney and Mattel relating to Winnie the Pooh," Patricia Slesinger said.
"In her suit against Mattel, Ms. Greenwald alleged that Mattel had been involved in some improper conduct that related its Disney sales, of which Winnie the Pooh is a major part," she said. Mattel, a Fields client, asked him to step aside, she said, after Fields unsuccessfully sought documents relating to Disney and Pooh from the company. Mattel claimed Fields could only have gotten knowledge of the documents from representing Mattel, she said.
Now Fields is woefully embroiled in a wiretapping scandal that surrounds the arrest of famed private investigator Anthony J. Pellicano, who is now in Federal prison. Pellicano was hired by Fields in a number of cases, and according to news reports may have heard transcripts of wiretapped conversations obtained by the investigator, who was also employed by many other high-profile trial lawyers. The American Reporter has sought information from both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles to learn if wiretaps may have been placed by Pellicano to record conversations of its editor, who has written extensively about the case - sometimes angering Fields and the Slesingers - and who was deposed for more than 18 hours by Disney lawyers. Neither has responded.
The Slesingers have owned licensing rights to those products since 1929, when branding pioneer Stephen Slesinger acquired them from children's author A.A. Milne. Since 1991 - in what is the longest-running civil case in Los Angeles County - the Slesingers have tried to get Disney to pay back royalties they claim they are owed for sales of theme park merchandiseand new technological products such as CDs and DVDs.
Evidence offered in the case has indicated the claim could be worth about a billion dollars, and the Slesingers are asking a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles to grant them termination rights under the contract for intentional fraud by Disney. Most rulings in the case have gone aganst Disney, including one on destruction of evidence that led to stern sanctions against the studio. Disney has argued that the sanctions, which were upheld on appeal by the California Supreme Court until any trial ends and appeals begin, would "cripple" its defense.
The case may come to trial in early 2004.