2001-Mar.: Ed Masry, More Famous than Donato the Christ

Ed Masry, More Famous than Donato the Christ!

By Brett Johnson

Ventura County Star writer, Sunday March 25, 2001

References to Morningland are in orange below

Ed Masry has a million stories from a life and law career that have added a few hues to the word colorful, but right now he’s focused on the invisible thing that’s made him famous.

It’s in a glass of iced tea that Masry holds during lunch at a tony Westlake Village eatery. “We know as I drink this that there is chromium 6 in there,” Masry said. “Is there enough chromium 6 in here to kill me? I don’t think so, because otherwise I wouldn’t be drinking it. The question is, ‘How much does it take?’ We don’t know that.”

Masry, still a neophyte on the Thousand Oaks City Council, uses this to illustrate why he insists on continued testing of the city’s drinking water supply for chromium 6.

But the iced tea imagery is steeped so much deeper. Chromium 6 is the chemical that Masry — pushed by his brassy investigator, Erin Brockovich — alleged poisoned residents of Hinkley, a small desert town near Barstow.

They won a record $333 million settlement, on behalf of more than 600 townsfolk, against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. It spawned the movie “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts in the title role and Albert Finney as Masry. Both actors are up for Oscars at tonight’s Academy Awards; the movie is up for best picture. Masry and Brockovich both will attend.

If you think that’s all the Hollywood to Ed Masry, think again. He’s in negotiations with a production company for a TV series based on his 40-year career as an attorney.

It will not lack for electricity.

Masry has represented politicians, judges, prostitutes and pimps, a stripper named Lucky Wynn, a religious cult, a television evangelist, former “Baywatch” and sex-tape star Pamela Lee and, at one time, more than half of the Los Angeles Rams football team. He once owned part of the rock band Steppenwolf of “Born To Be Wild” fame.

Just one of Masry’s many dabblings includes all of this: kidnapping (his word) two kids in Hong Kong and taking them to Australia by “dubious means” on behalf of a client in a religious group, burning a court order on television, and being accused by the state Attorney General’s Office of bribing a lieutenant governor and theft of funds.

Masry trafficks in lucrative, high-stakes poker games called environmental tort cases, where eight- and nine-figure sums are tossed around like idle chatter. He sues giant companies such as PG&E, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed Martin on behalf of the little guys he says are getting “shafted.” The potential reward for Masry runs into the millions — as does the risk, he quickly notes.

This from a man who hasn’t tried a case in a courtroom in 11 years.

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, then the law has its share of unusual relationships. The same lieutenant governor Masry was accused of bribing has been a friend of Masry’s for 34 years. And about the time Masry was starting work on PG&E’s alleged poisoning of Hinkley’s water, he represented a marina owner accused of dumping toxic batteries into Lake Arrowhead, also used for drinking water. One involved real pollution, and one didn’t, he offered in defense of the flip-flop.

By his count, Masry has been jailed five times — and comedian Danny Thomas once saved him from 60 days in the clink.

“I’ve represented such a diverse cast of characters, from the very good to the very bad — or make that allegedly very bad,” Masry said. “I am probably the most jailed attorney in California who’s never been convicted of a felony or ever been brought before the state bar for a hearing on any misconduct.”

After all this, Masry is asked why trifle with the Thousand Oaks City Council, not exactly known for its civility. He echoes a familiar refrain heard throughout Ventura County in recent years: He hears the San Fernando Valley’s footsteps coming and doesn’t like that.

“I’m 68 years old, and I don’t want to move again,” he said. “I’m not going to be chased out of Thousand Oaks by the developers.”

‘A very endearing guy’

In the movie, Finney portrays Masry as a sort of bumbling, crusty guy who has a heart. Masry liked the performance, likes the actor.

“Albert Finney is the kind of guy you can have a beer with,” Masry said, his open-collar, shoeless casual look and occasionally salty language offsetting his well-appointed Westlake Village law office. “Of course, he’d prefer a glass of wine; I’d be the one having the glass of beer.”

His famous chief environmental investigator, now remarried and going by the name Erin Brockovich-Ellis, said Masry is laid back, accepting of people as they are, but definitely not bumbling. She jokingly called Masry “a snake.”

“Just the other day he was on the phone with my husband, going, ‘That god-damned Brockovich so and so,’ ” she said with a laugh. “Then he pulls this endearing teddy-bear act and you can’t be mad at him. You can’t be mad at Ed Masry. He’s a very endearing guy.”

But that does not apply to those on the other side of the aisle or an issue, she said.

“I’ve seen a side of Ed as an attorney that frankly is frightening,” Brockovich-Ellis, who lives in Agoura Hills, said. “It’s not that he has a temper, it’s that he just will not give up. He will hang in there until the bitter end. I wouldn’t push him around.”

Masry hired Brockovich-Ellis in 1992, and she said she’s “grown to like him more in the last nine years.”

In the movie, the two argue a lot. In real life, both say they have a love-hate relationship.

“Some days, you just want to strangle Erin Brockovich,” Masry said, smiling.

Former state legislator, lieutenant governor and congressman Mervin Dymally characterized Masry as no-nonsense, loyal, principled, a fighter and “a man of great integrity.”

“He’s a very, very interesting guy,” Dymally said. “He enjoys life. He goes into any project with a whole lot of gusto.”

Played track and football

Ed Masry was born in New Jersey in 1932 to a Syrian father and a French mother who had met while he was in the U.S. Army in World War I and she was fleeing the German army in France. The family moved across the country to Southern California in 1940 in two old Fords, sometimes sleeping along the road.

At first, they lived in Venice. Masry remembers going out to the end of the Venice Pier with friends and diving into the water for pennies, nickels and quarters that people threw into the ocean.

“The water was so clear you could see the money floating down,” he said. “That wouldn’t happen today.”

They went on grunion runs and skipped school to see the circus when it came to town. Masry became a child actor because the family knew someone in the neighborhood who had played Valentino’s mother in a movie.

When he was in seventh grade, his father bought land on what is now the Van Nuys Airport. The family stayed in a bungalow that Masry recalled was smaller than his office, so small that he slept outside in an adjoining tent for three years.

Masry graduated from Van Nuys High School and then tried to join the Marines, but his parents wouldn’t let him. He wound up going to Valley Junior College on a “fluke” athletic scholarship, and played track and football. A 1950 roster lists Masry as playing center and weighing 158 pounds; offensive linemen today, he noted, weigh more than twice that much.

Masry served in the Army during the Korean conflict. After returning, he took classes at UC-Santa Barbara, UCLAand USC. He did not receive a bachelor’s degree, but Masry said he was admitted to Loyola Law School on the basis of high placement scores and was graduated in 1960. In January 1961, he was admitted to the California State Bar.

Contempt of court citation

In the early days, Masry was a struggling criminal defense attorney, taking on “anyone who came through the door and said they were innocent.”

The same year he was admitted to the bar, Masry defended a rug merchant in Indio who subsequently was sentenced to jail by a justice of the peace for carrying a concealed weapon. Masry’s client, a member of an orthodox church, had no prior record and Masry thought the sentence was stiff. When he told the judge that, they got into an argument and Masry was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

As it so happened, comedian Danny Thomas was a member of the same church. He showed up in court, went into chambers with the judge and not only erased Masry’s jail time but got probation for Masry’s client.

“I got my first lesson that sometimes it’s important as to who you know and not what you know,” Masry said.

Masry once represented a stripper named Lucky Wynn, who opened a topless bar in Santa Monica only to be threatened with arrest and closure. Masry won the case — and Lucky won the right to take off her blouse in a club.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Masry was an agent for Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel and other members of the Los Angeles Rams, as well as other National Football League players. He poked around in league antitrust issues, helped players gain free agency and bumped heads with powerful NFLCommissioner Pete Rozelle.

“He and I did not get along,” Masry recalled of the late commissioner. “He and I exchanged four-letter words. But you always knew where you stood with Pete Rozelle. EPete Rozelle had a mean streak in him, but he was the best thing that ever happened to pro football.”

Masry once successfully defended a doctor against murder charges.

“He was black in the days when that wasn’t a popular thing to be, especially when you were giving abortions to white women,” Masry said.

He also represented two South Americans in an alleged drug-money laundering case — Masry claimed it was a CIAoperation — that made the cover of Time magazine. The “monstrous case,” Masry said, lasted a year; his closing argument went three days. Ultimately, his two clients went to prison; one died there, and the other is still there.

“My fights have always been the little guy vs. the big guy, David vs. Goliath,” he said.

It wasn’t until Hinkley that Masry realized how lucrative that could be.

Make — or lose — millions

Ed Masry’s math goes something like this.

He says he won’t accept an environmental pollution case unless it has the potential of at least $70 million in damages. Win, and his firm, Masry & Vititoe, takes 40 percent of the damages awarded. Lose, and the firm gets nothing — and is out expenses.

It’s both a calculated risk and a crapshoot.

“Let’s face it, there’s a lot of money in it, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t like the money,” Masry said. “We make big money and we roll big money. When we roll these cases, we roll millions of dollars.”

In the $333 million Hinkley settlement in 1996, the math added up to quite a chunk of change. Using the 40 percent take, and the fact that it was split among three firms, that leaves Masry’s firm with roughly $40 million — an estimate he won’t confirm but doesn’t deny, either. (Brockovich-Ellis received $2 million in bonuses.)

“People say, ‘Oh God, they made $40 million,’ but they forget what we risked,” Masry said.

The Hinkley case wiped out the firm’s operating capital. Masry sold a second home, drained his life savings.

“If we had lost Hinkley, it would have cost the firm about $25 million,” he said.

It’s easy to spend $5 million just on small cases, Masry added.

Flush with success in Hinkley, Masry and company filed similar cases in the late 1990s against Rocketdyne in Simi Valley and Unocal in Avila Beach — and didn’t fare nearly as well.

Masry alleged that rocket and nuclear tests over the years at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Simi Valley polluted ground water, caused illnesses in people, including cancers, and damaged property. The case is dead — a judge dismissed it — and the firm lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“We flat out got beat,” Masry said. “That’s our one big failure, and I feel sorry for the people who are sick.

“My own opinion: Did Rocketdyne poison people? Yes. Can we prove it? No. Rocketdyne was too smart. They destroyed everything. That happens in too many cases. There are a lot of people getting shafted out there.”

Rocketdyne spokesman Dan Beck called Masry’s legal claims “patently ridiculous.”

“They offered no scientific evidence that we endangered public health, and we don’t think there is any danger,” Beck said.

In Avila Beach, much of which is contaminated with oil, Masry got some money for some 60 residents there, but many were dissatisfied with the amount and critical of Masry’s performance and tactics. Masry said he did the best he could.

“Did our clients get a fair settlement? No,” he said. “I didn’t like the settlement either, but we got something.”

Today, Masry & Vititoe has 13 attorneys. Five people, including Masry and Brockovich-Ellis, are licensed to handle and sample chemicals. The firm conducts its own chemical tests.

Masry ticks off a list of pending environmental tort cases: one in Hawaii, one in New Hampshire, two in West Virginia, three in New York state, one in New Jersey. Companies involved in those include Dole, Del Monte, Shell and Dow. In California, he’s taking on Pepsi in Willits, as well as aviation giants Lockheed Martin in Redlands and McDonnell Douglas in Sacramento.

Roll the dice. It could come up seven, it could come up snake eyes.

“You gotta know what you’re doing,” Masry said.

Though best known for the environmental cases, Masry also deals in other legal facets, including entertainment law. He’s helping Pamela Lee fight distribution of two private, but downloaded, sex tapes she made — the first with Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee and the second with Poison singer Brett Michaels.

“We’re representing both Tommy and Pamela on the Tommy tape, and we’ve resolved litigation on the Brett tape,” Masry said.

Alleged extortion

Since the release of “Erin Brockovich,” Masry and company have found themselves to be targets of criticism and lawsuits.

Critics say it’s impossible that one chemical, that chromium 6, caused all the illnesses in Hinkley, and that chromium 6 is only dangerous when inhaled. Brockovich-Ellis responded that the people of Hinkley did inhale.

Like the large corporations he sometimes targets in environmental cases, Masry claims people are after him because he has money.

Last week, Masry and Brockovich-Ellis testified in a $310,000 extortion case involving Brockovich-Ellis’ former husband and former live-in boyfriend. The pair allegedly demanded the money in exchange for not telling tabloids about a supposed sexual relationship between Masry and Brockovich-Ellis — an affair both deny.

Also pending is a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed against him last year by a former attorney at the firm, Kissandra Cohen. Cohen, now 22, claims that she was fired in late 1999 for refusing Masry’s sexual advances — a charge Masry denies.

In her lawsuit, Cohen — a former child prodigy who graduated from college at age 17 and became one of the youngest people ever to pass the bar exam — also alleges that a sexually charged and anti-Semitic atmosphere existed at Masry & Vititoe.

Andre Jardini, a trial attorney representing Cohen, said that Masry also is being sued for defamatory remarks about Cohen.

“In my mind E he’s just being a bully,” Jardini said.

Masry claims he has 65 witnesses lined up to refute Cohen’s various charges.

“She’s not going to get a dime off me,” he said. “When this is over, I’m going to take the transcript to the state bar and recommend they take disciplinary action against her.”

State bar spokeswoman Kathleen Beitiks confirmed that Masry has never been disciplined by the licensing association — or even had a notice of charges filed on him for violations of rules governing professional conduct.

That includes what follows.

Burned court order on TV

In the late 1970s, Masry came to represent television evangelist Gene Scott, as well as a group called Morningland, deemed by some to be a cult. His involvement produced a complex story involving civil disobedience, bribery and theft allegations, airline tickets to Hong Kong, the state Attorney General’s Office and Dymally, the lieutenant governor at the time in the Jerry Brown administration.

In the San Diego County town of Vista, Masry defended Morningland members against accusations of murder and kidnapping.

Around the same time, Masry and Scott’s church were battling the Attorney General’s Office over whether the state had rights to examine and control church financial records. When Scott and Masry received a court order to turn over the church’s records, the two went on television and burned the order. Masry also threatened to hold a protest parade through downtown Los Angeles.

“It was civil disobedience,” Masry recalled. “After that, the A.G.’s Office wanted me so bad they could taste me.”

Later, acting on behalf of a female Morningland member, Masry flew to Hong Kong and kidnapped her two children, who were taken there by her husband in a custody battle. Masry took the children to Australia — and that’s when things really broke loose.

Masry had waived his attorney fees, but the flights cost $15,000 and the church group put up the money. So the Attorney General’s Office, arguing that it had authority over church finances, prosecuted Masry. Masry also was accused of bribing Dymally with $10,000 in church funds on behalf of the Morningland people.

Masry was indicted by a San Diego County grand jury for embezzlement of “underlying” state funds and convicted in a Superior Court trial, but was granted a new trial on the basis of juror misconduct. That one ended with a hung jury and the charges went away.

“No one ever ended up being convicted of anything,” said Nathan Barankin, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office.

Paul Gordnier, the prosecutor in the case, declined to comment for this story.

“It’s time we broke bread and had a beer,” Masry said of Gordnier. “It’s been 20 years, and I have nothing against him. He was just doing his job.”

Dymally said the bribery charge was bogus. He recalled being at a dinner with Morningland people, and the group included a plant from the Attorney General’s Office.

“First of all, if a politician is going to take a bribe, he’s not going to do it in front of (a bunch of) people and say, ‘I need $10,000,’ ” Dymally said. “It was so untruthful. It made me very skeptical of conspiracy trials. It just really shook my faith in the system.”

The battle over church finances and records ended with nonprofit religious organizations securing greater freedom and control. What “broke the attorney general’s back,” Masry said, was when more and more church groups joined the fray. “We started a religious uproar,” Masry said. “If the attorney general tried this today, he’d be lynched.”

Among other things, the Morningland people believed that their founder awaited them in a spaceship orbiting above the Earth. But Masry preached a lesson in tolerance. “Depending on your point of view, who is nuttier — me or the Morningland people?” Masry asked. “That’s something we all have to understand — the other person or group’s point of view.”

But some people in Thousand Oaks say Masry doesn’t respect people who disagree with him.

Will never try another case

Masry and his second wife, Joette, moved to the Conejo Valley in 1996, and Masry brought his law firm to Westlake Village the next year.

When not involved in various battles, the couple enjoy taking trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Europe. It was to Joette that Masry promised he would never try another case in court after the draining 1990 money-laundering case. Masry now mainly handles final negotiations, works on trial preparations and delegates trying the cases to others. He never tried the Hinkley case, for example.

Masry also is somewhat limited because he must undergo kidney dialysis three times a week, which takes over five hours and drains away 10 to 15 pounds each session. He’s also a colon cancer and heart-bypass operation survivor, but says he is in good health overall.

Masry’s involvement in local politics started with contributing money to causes and supporting former Councilwoman Elois Zeanah in a recall drive. He filed lawsuits over such issues as the steepness of Borchard Road.

Masry surprised himself and friends by running for a council seat.

Masry, who took office in January, has dived right in. The drinking water in Thousand Oaks, he says, is just fine and nothing to be alarmed about — the testing is just a safety net.

At a recent council meeting, Masry criticized a proposed agreement involving the Western Plateau and adjustments in developer subdivisions — a deal fashioned by Councilman Andy Fox. Masry said he trusts almost no one among city staffers.

Masry said he has problems with the performances of City Manager MaryJane Lazz and City Attorney Mark Sellers and wants to discuss that in closed session at this Tuesday’s meeting. Sellers, Lazz and Fox all declined to comment on Masry for this story.

At least two public speakers at the last council meeting blasted Masry for his insulting and accusatory manner. One called him a “cheap-shot artist” and said Masry is not worthy of serving on the council. Some rumble about launching a recall drive against Masry.

Responded Masry: “You’re looking at an old soldier. When people get upset with me, it just rolls off my back.”

Councilwoman Linda Parks, aligned with Masry on the panel, praised him for helping the underdog in various activities and defended his approach.

“We all have our own styles,” Parks said. “He’s willing to say that the emperor has no clothes when it’s not politically correct to do so.”

Brockovich-Ellis said Masry reminds her of her father.

“He’s a constant,” she said. “In the world we live in today, that’s a most pleasurable quality. I love him.”

Dymally believes Masry ultimately will not seek re-election in 2004 because it is taking too much time away from what he loves — the law.

Masry, as mayor pro tem, is in line to become Thousand Oaks’ mayor next year — though that is subject to council vote.

Masry said it’s too early to tell what his council career will bring, noting that he’s still “getting my feet wet.”

But if it in any way approaches his law career, it could be more Hollywood fodder.

– Brett Johnson’s e-mail address is


On the Net: For a Masry biography and a list of his numerous awards, try