The secret probe that got Branca fired
By Johnnie L. Roberts
Published: December 05, 2010 @ 8:48 pm
It’s known as the “Interfor Report,” after the Manhattan-based corporate espionage firm, Interfor Inc.
The contents -- based on a private investigation by the firm on Michael Jackson’s behalf in 2002 and 2003 -- included stunning assertions about John Branca, the entertainer’s on-again, off-again music attorney for 30 years and now co-executor of his estate.
Interfor’s investigation, "found a tight business relationship between Branca and Tommy Mottola,” then-CEO of Sony Music, where Jackson was an artist, according to an excerpt from the firm’s final report. The excerpt added: “Interfor has begun investigating the flow of funds from Jackson through Mottola and Branca into offshore accounts in the Carribean [sic].”
The investigation, which apparently began in late 2002, provided no credible evidence to corroborate those and other assertions. And the probe may have been little more than part of an elaborate smear campaign intended to influence the beleaguered Jackson to fire Branca.
If so, it was successful.
“This is to confirm that I am terminating the services of you and your firm effective upon delivery of this letter,” Jackson wrote the attorney in February 2003. “You are commanded to immediately cease expending effort of any kind on my behalf…You are specifically instructed to transfer any funds you are holding in trust for me…”
Branca declined repeated overtures for further comment after having granted this reporter a lengthy taped interview last summer.
Mottola, who abruptly resigned from Sony a month before Jackson fired Branca, called the assertion about off-shore accounts involving him "nonsense." But in an interview Sunday evening, he also added that he would have been unaware of any offshore accounts established by Branca, Jackson or both. It's "not anything that a multinational corporation like Sony" would have been involved in during his tenure, Mottola reiterated.
It’s unclear who ordered the investigation. But the report, dated April 15, 2003, was prepared for an attorney with Hale Lane Peek Dennison & Howard, the firm that Jackson hired to succeed Branca. In a brief interview in June, the lawyer, Fred D. Gibson III, confirmed that Jackson was a client of the firm.
(There are some indications that the report in some way figured in Jackson’s child molestation trial in 2005, and it has been grist for internet conspiracy theorists apparently for years. More recently, Joe Jackson filed the Interfor excerpts in his son’s probate case in an unsuccessful effort to oust Branca as co-executor.)
The report materialized in 2003 amid a complex, and ultimately aborted, effort by a new inner circle of Jackson financial advisers, including Goldman Sachs, to craft a bailout of the beleaguered entertainer. With the due date on the horizon, Jackson owed a breathtaking $270 million to Bank of America. And a default would mean Jackson’s probable loss of, among other things, his most prized assets -- half share in Sony/ATV Music Publishing, repository of the Beatles song catalog, and Mijac, the catalogue of his own songs, including “Beat It” and “Billy Jean.”
The abortive bailout was led by Goldman Sachs and included two others -- Charles Koppelman and Alvin Malnik.
A veteran music executive and investor, Koppelman and a partner had lost out to Jackson in the 1985 auction in which the performer acquired the Beatles catalogue. As Jackson's putative adviser, he recruited Goldman.
Florida entrepreneur Malnik, meanwhile, has been dogged for years by rumored mob ties. As a young lawyer in the ‘60s, he represented mob boss Meyer Lansky. “Heir apparent,” Reader’s Digest dubbed him when Lansky died in 1983.
Frowning on Malnik’s mob associations, the New Jersey Casino Commission once considered him “a person of unsuitable character and unsuitable reputation,” and said Malnik “himself participated in transactions that were clearly illegitimate and illegal.”
Once, in a rebuttal in the Palm Beach Post, Malnik lamented the mob talk as “the most preposterous, ridiculous, indefensible situation to be in.”
For several months, as Goldman and Koppelman crafted the rescue proposal, Malnik and his family hosted Jackson and his three kids at their 35,000-square-foot Beaux Arts mansion near Palm Beach. In the Goldman dealings, he emerged in the powerful role of co-executor of Jackson trusts that controlled his song copyrights.
Branca, the Interfor excerpt suggests, had it in for Malnik. The superlawyer suggested in a letter to the U.S. Justice Department “that the authorities will want to review Malnik’s background,” according to the excerpt. “Branca suggested that Malnik’s goal in this relationship is to utilize Jackson's financial resources and cash business to facilitate Malnik's comprehensive money laundering activities.”
Last week, Malnik dismissed the episode. “I am not aware of any story to the Justice Department or that any dealings with Michael were intended to advance a money laundering operation,” he wrote in an emailed reaction to this story. “Moreover, I not only regard such an assertion as totally untrue, but ridiculous and preposterous.”
Malnik added: “I have never heard from the Justice Department, and John [Branca] and I have always been friends with each other, and therefore I doubt that John would have said anything like that.”
About Interfor and its owner, Malnik wrote: “I have heard negative and unreliable comments about that company and its director, Juval Aviv.”
An Israeli émigré, Aviv once made a Village Voice headline, “Secret Agent Schmuck.” The Voice reported that Israel had officially discredited Aviv’s public suggestions that he was the lead assassin of state intelligence service Mossad in avenging the Munich massacre.
Last week, Aviv, through an assistant, referred a call for comment to Gibson, the Jackson attorney identified on the report.