Big Business of Selling Celebrity Secrets

From airports, doctor's offices to court, there's no safe place to be a celeb.

September 22, 2009, 9:21 AM

Sept. 22, 2009— -- Celebrities are used to having their private information leaked by limo drivers, hair dressers, personal assistants. But the people who are supposed to protect them -- police, doctors, medical personnel -- are apparently getting in on the big business of selling celebrity secrets.

In one extreme case, for instance, Bahamian officials allegedly demanded $25 million from actor John Travolta to keep information about his son's death from being sold to tabloid newspapers -- allegations the officials deny.

Travolta's son Jett, 16, died of a seizure Jan. 2 while vacationing in the Bahamas. Opening arguments in the case begin today, where Travolta is expected to testify.

In another high-profile case, days after singer Chris Brown hit Rihanna, official police evidence -- a photo of the apparently battered singer -- was posted on TMZ, the entertainment news Web site. Brown was sentenced to probation and community service.

Even actress Sarah Jessica Parker's surrogate, Michelle Ross, became a target when two Ohio Police chiefs were charged with burglarizing her home -- charges they too deny.

"I am incredibly outraged by the sort of extraordinary and unprecedented invasion of her privacy," Parker told Access Hollywood. "The most unsavory things have been done. She's had her phone hacked, her personal computer information hacked."

Terry Ahern, founder of Stoparazzi, a group that fights for the privacy rights of celebrities, said celebrities are no longer safe anywhere.

"Airports, medical centers, doctor's offices, courts," he said, "they're all penetrated, and they all have leads inside of there that dish this information. It's usually people at low levels who don't have as much to lose as far as a career, and the tradeoff for the money they're going to make on a story."

Take Lawanda Jackson, an administrative assistant at UCLA Medical Center, who allegedly sold the details about actress Farrah Fawcett's cancer to the National Enquirer.

Fawcett's best friend, Alana Stewart, said Fawcett knew early on the leak had to come from inside the hospital.

"She would go to get an eye exam, and, then, three days later, it would be in the Enquirer that she is going blind," Stewart said. "And then she would to the gynecologist for a pap smear and it would say she's having a hysterectomy. But there would be a little pinch of the truth in it but it was always greatly exaggerated. [Fawcett] said the National Enquirer caused her more stress than the cancer. It just infuriated her, and she felt so violated."

Alana Stewart: Tabloid Stories Infuriated Farrah

Stewart documents the alleged invasion of privacy in her new book, "My Journey With Farrah," and the documentary, "Farrah's Story." She claimed Fawcett was so frustrated she would literally tear up the tabloids and even picked up the phone and personally called Jackson in an effort to "get the truth from her."

"I think Lawanda Jackson was really shocked when, suddenly, she had Farrah Fawcett on the phone, calling her," Stewart said. "She was very nice to Lawanda. I know that because Farrah really didn't feel she was the main culprit. She felt the Enquirer was the main culprit. Jackson was a pawn in a larger game. She [Fawcett] wanted to take the Enquirer down."

Fawcett was one of 30 high-profile patients, including Britney Spears and Maria Shriver, who had their personal files breached by Jackson. Jackson pleaded guilty and faced up to 10 years in prison but died of cancer two days before she was scheduled to be sentenced.

With the right credentials, accessing records is as easy as the click of a mouse or being at the right place at the right time. "There's a couple different ways they get the information," author Ahern said. "One is, they overhear it, two is, they see somebody that's famous in there, and they go and look for it."

Often tabloids will seek out workers on the inside, Ahern said, but some officials will actually reach out to them, hoping for a big payoff.

In the case of Parker's surrogate, Ohio Special Prosecutor T. Sean Hervey said, Martins Ferry Police Chief Barry Carpenter and Bridgeport Police Chief Chad Dojack allegedly used their police powers to gain access to her home and then contacted reporters.

"They are accused of burglarizing the home and attempting to sell that property," Hervey said. "When you live in a small town with a depressed economy, money is always tight. When people can throw around tens of thousands of dollars for a simple photograph of someone who is connected to a celebrity, I think it entices people a heck of a lot."

But selling information doesn't have to be a covert operation. Promises of big bucks for good gossip can be found on just about every tabloid Web site. Just click and send an e-mail.

TMZ's Harvey Levin: Paying for Tips Is Part of the Business

TMZ's Harvey Levin, who was the first to report Michael Jackson's death and to post the Rihanna photo, said paying for tips is a big part of the business.

"I think it's the biggest lie in the world that people don't pay for video and people don't pay for photos," he said. "If there's a tip that leads us to something, we'll pay for it, but we still have to get the story,."

Levin wouldn't say how he obtained the Rihanna photo, or if he paid for it. But when asked in a separate interview why he posted it in the first place, he said, "You folks released her name long before this, so did we, so did everybody. This picture was a really relevant picture based on what both sides were talking about."

As for paying for patient records, prosecutors allege that Lawanda Jackson received $4,600 for leaking patient records and had the checks made out to her husband to hide the money trail. Tabloids often hide the money that way, Ahern said.

"They always pay somebody else, and mostly cash," he said. "It can be a check too, but they have it down so they're hiding behind the First Amendment right if anything comes up, and you won't be able to find the trail. The organization that's working with the insider teaches them very quickly how things work, gives them the comfort and once they become a lead or a source for them, then they're in forever."

While leaking information is easy to get away with, many celebrities are trying to gain the upper hand. Tom Cruise told Oprah Winfrey he bought a sonogram machine, which can cost up to $200,000, to protect the privacy of his unborn child, Suri Cruise.

"Twelve hours after Kate tested [positive for her] pregnancy test, we went [to the doctor] in the middle of the night," he said. "Someone leaked it. ... Kate and I looked at each other and went, 'Man, I thought I was good setting this up.'"

Officials are now starting to take complaints more seriously. Travolta's extortion allegation led to two arrests. Tarino Lightbourne, the paramedic who first responded to Jett's collapse and Pleasant Bridgewater, a former politician, have pleaded not guilty. Two LAPD officers are on administrative leave because of the Rihanna leak. And, in the case of Parker's surrogate, paparazzi turned in the Ohio police chiefs, who have pleaded not guilty. They've been suspended and are scheduled to go to trial next month.

As for Fawcett, she took matters into her own hands, carrying out a sting operation, which she discussed in her documentary.

"When the first or second article came out, I knew immediately that the information was coming from UCLA to the National Enquirer," she said. "So when my cancer came back, that's when I set it up with my doctor. I said, 'You know and I know. I'm not telling Redmond, I'm not telling Ryan, I'm not telling my girlfriends. So I know if it came out, it was coming from UCLA.'"

Deliberately withholding the news from her friends and family, Stewart said the information came out in the tabloid within four days.

Holding Tabloids Accountable

Since then, UCLA has also strengthened its policies. According to a new state law that Fawcett was instrumental in getting passed, California hospitals are now required to report breaches to the Department of Public Health and can face fines of up to $250,000. Officials received more than 800 reports of health data breaches in the first five months alone.

But Stewart said she wants the tabloids to be held accountable, making it a crime to purchase stolen information.

"If you catch the people and stop the people that are buying the information and that are bribing people with money, then you're going to stop a lot of this invasion of privacy," she said.

A U.S. attorney is looking into the National Enquirer's role in the UCLA breach, saying it's part of an ongoing investigation.

American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer, had no comment.

Stewart told ABC News that Fawcett was in the middle of a settlement with the tabloid but died before a deal was worked out.

"She was going to give part of it to the Farrah Fawcett Foundation ... cancer research," Stewart said. "And, by the way, the best thing the National Enquirer could do today, if they have any decency about them, is to give a very large donation to the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, along with an apology. I think they owe it to Farrah."

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