Up until last month, there didn’t seem to be a TV camera that attorney Debra Opri wouldn’t embrace.
The brash, self-professed blue-collar gal from New Jersey had secured a costarring role in the Anna Nicole Smith media circus as the attorney waging war to prove that Larry Birkhead was in fact the father of the now-deceased Playboy bombshell’s baby girl.
Her hair long, dark and stick-straight, the 47-year-old hovered perennially at Birkhead’s side, always ready to hit the Larry King-Bill O’Reilly talk-show circuit on his behalf, always filled with snappy quotes for reporters. Before Smith died, Opri routinely chastised the buxom blond from myriad courthouse steps. “Where’s this woman’s decency? Where’s her fairness?” a righteous Opri asked.
Now, her former star client is asking the same question about Opri.
In March the two acrimoniously parted ways, and in June, Birkhead sued her for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. He also filed a complaint with the California Bar Assn., which is investigating. Two weeks ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles C. Lee gave Birkhead his first victory in what is expected to be a long skirmish — granting his request that $591,250 of Birkhead’s money Opri had sequestered in her attorney-client trust account be transferred into a separate blocked account, that could be touched only by court order.
While it’s unclear how the case will end, Birkhead’s allegations have the potential to seriously dent Opri’s once-promising career as the next Greta Van Susteren or Nancy Grace, one of those tough-talking, camera-ready legal eagles on call to opine about the day’s courthouse skirmish. To journalist and author Diane Dimond, who first noticed Opri at the second Michael Jackson trial, Opri was at the vanguard of a “disturbing trend of attorneys that began to show up at high-profile trials like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson.”
Lawyers, Dimond explains, who essentially show up for the cameras to “get face time.” With law and celebrity increasingly intertwined in a tabloid and 24-hour-news-dominated culture, the matter of Birkhead vs. Opri is more than just a nasty spat. It’s also a revealing excursion into a high-stakes world where punditry and legal representation can collide and where six-figure deals between newsmakers and the media are part of the game.
Opri got her start in this rarefied corner of the law by working for the late singer James Brown and then the parents of Michael Jackson. She made a splash giving interviews during Jackson’s molestation trial. Her career, her detractors say, is a vivid case study of how lawyers can push their way into the media circus and sometimes profit from their exertions.
Birkhead’s claims raise questions of whether she ran roughshod over her client’s interest in a quest to rack up airtime and legal bills. His suit isn’t her only problem. Opri represented actress Pamela Bach in her legal faceoff in court against her erstwhile husband, “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff. Last month, Bach fired Opri after she lost full custody of her two daughters.
Meanwhile, Hasselhoff’s lawyers have filed a motion in Superior Court to get her financial records to determine the exact sum — believed by his lawyers to be hundreds of thousands of dollars — that Bach and/or Opri allegedly received in connection with the sale to the media of the infamous video of a drunken Hasselhoff. Opri denies having anything to do with the video.