By Harriet Ryan and Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times –
It was billed as a “shocking tell-all” and a “world exclusive,” but the National Enquirer’s March 26 cover story landed with a thud. TMZ, Page Six and other major players in celebrity gossip ignored the article in which a masseur claimed John Travolta offered money for sex.
Five weeks after the issue left the checkout aisle, a DUI attorney from Pasadena, Calif., put the anonymous masseur’s tawdry tale in a lawsuit and it became an overnight pop culture sensation, topping Google News, trending on Twitter and meriting a segment on “Good Morning America.” Another anonymous accuser joined the suit, and Travolta found himself in an embarrassing spot just as he was preparing to promote a new Oliver Stone movie.
The case imploded last week with the accusers voluntarily dismissing the suit. What remained were questions about how a small-time attorney with financial problems and a desire to boost his legal profile got the case in the first place and why a sloppy and inaccurate court filing was able to generate so much unwanted attention on a long-established Hollywood star.
Travolta has not talked publicly about the scandal, though he will likely be asked about it at press junkets this summer. In July, the 58-year-old actor will star as a federal agent in Stone’s crime thriller “Savages.” Travolta’s attorney Martin Singer said he didn’t want to talk about the case’s effect on Travolta’s career — the actor just completed filming a movie with Robert De Niro and is involved with other high-profile projects — but said that from a legal standpoint, his client had achieved a complete victory: “You couldn’t ask for anything better when two people drop their lawsuits.”
Singer, who has repeatedly called the allegations baseless, said he suspected the National Enquirer played some role in connecting the Texas masseur with Okorie Chukwudimm Okorocha, the Pasadena lawyer.
“I don’t know how you would pick Okorie Okorocha out of a phone book,” said Singer, a Hollywood power player whose clientele includes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen and Sylvester Stallone. He said he had assigned a private investigator to look into Okorocha.
A spokeswoman for the Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Inc., did not respond to questions about the tabloid’s involvement. Okorocha initially said in a telephone interview that he did not recall how he got the case. Moments later he said the Enquirer story was brought to his attention by a stranger at a farmers market and that by coincidence the masseur contacted him via email two days later.
“That’s a little surreal, right?” he said. Pressed about a connection to the Enquirer, Okorocha said he and an editor from Radar Online, an American Media gossip site that posted a dozen exclusive stories about the scandal, attended the same church and he considered her a “family friend,” but insisted she had not played any part in the masseur’s retaining him.
The editor, Jen Heger, disputed his account of a relationship in an email, saying she was “not aware of ever meeting Okorie Okorocha,” had never attended church with him and had not heard his name before the Okorocha suit. A lawyer for AMI subsequently sent Okorocha a letter demanding that he “refrain from making any further statement or suggestion that you have a personal friendship with Ms. Heger or any other person at Radar.”
Hours later, Okorocha sent an email to the Los Angeles Times, copied to the AMI attorney, disavowing his previous claims: “I do NOT know anyone associated or employed there. I have no personal relationship with anyone there at all. I apologize for the harm I caused.”
Okorocha approached Travolta’s representatives last month in an effort to settle the masseur’s grievance privately. An attorney since 2003, the 36-year-old Okorocha had one previous brush with celebrity when he was accused in a lawsuit of trying to broker the sale of a sex tape featuring Verne Troyer, the actor who played Mini Me in the “Austin Powers” films. Okorocha’s normal caseload was sexual harassment and wrongful termination claims and DUI defenses, work that didn’t make for big headlines or paychecks.
Okorocha often worked for free as a DUI expert for other lawyers in hopes they would throw him some business, he wrote in a court filing in March in an ongoing child-custody dispute with his ex-wife. In recent years, he slid into debt. He filed for bankruptcy last summer, declaring an annual income of about $70,000 and debts of $1.2 million.
Okorocha said that when he approached Travolta’s camp, he didn’t demand a specific amount of money: “I never threw a number out there. I didn’t even say 50 cents.”
It’s not unusual in Hollywood for celebrities to avoid bad press by paying off individuals making salacious claims, even if they dispute the allegations. Okorocha said he expected that was what would transpire with his client, but “there was some miscommunication.”
“I gave (a Travolta attorney) a deadline and I said, ‘We need to have something by a certain day. We’re not going to wait around forever.’ I think somebody was on vacation or dropped the ball,” he said.
Singer confirmed the negotiations occurred and that Okorocha provided a draft copy of a suit, but said he wasn’t involved until late in the process because Okorocha initially contacted another law firm that handles Travolta’s business matters.
On May 4, Okorocha filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The nine-page assault and battery complaint demanded $2 million on behalf of a plaintiff identified only as John Doe and gave his sordid allegations a legitimacy the Enquirer did not. Since the allegations were in court filings, news outlets could report on them without fear of libel claims. For years, the Enquirer and other tabloids have published stories about supposed affairs and spa liaisons involving Travolta, who is married to actress Kelly Preston. But the masseur’s suit marked the first time the claims were made in court.
Copies of the lawsuit were widely available online and readers discovered a filing that appeared hastily written — one paragraph that referred to “assault and battery by a peace officer” seemed to have been cut and pasted from another document — but struck many as titillating and funny. There were graphic descriptions of Travolta’s genitals as well as irrelevant details of an alleged January encounter at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It described a personal chef preparing hamburgers for the star and “2 or 3 wrappers from chocolate cake packages” on the floor of his SUV.
In less than 24 hours, Okorocha became a sought-after interview, his head shot running alongside Travolta’s in stories about the suit. It was welcome attention for Okorocha. He had been eager to “build a name” as a lawyer, he wrote two months before in a declaration in his custody case.
“I … am doing all I can to try and gain recognition so that I can one day have a thriving practice choosing what cases to take,” he wrote.
Travolta’s lawyers identified problems with the masseur’s suit almost immediately. The actor’s legal team provided photos, flight records and receipts showing Travolta had been in New York on the date in question. Okorocha said his client made a mistake about the timing, but stood by the allegations. He told a camera crew in a video posted on TMZ that he was being inundated with calls by other potential victims and said he was in the process of vetting hundreds of similar claims.
But even as he was making these statements publicly, Okorocha was in search of additional accusers, according to a Los Angeles author he contacted.
Robert Randolph, who published a book this year containing allegations against Travolta, said Okorocha emailed him repeatedly looking for people with potential claims against Travolta. In a May 11 email Randolph provided to the Times, Okorocha wrote, “Is there a Travolta related matter you think I may want to look at?” After Randolph wrote that some men were fearful of coming forward, Okorocha responded: “I will keep them all confidential. They dont ever need to be disclosed.” Randolph said he was worried by Okorocha’s media appearance and ceased contact.
Last week both clients fired Okorocha, withdrew their cases and hired Gloria Allred. The media-savvy veteran said the men were still weighing whether to proceed with legal action. Okorocha responded Monday with a suit accusing Allred of poaching his clients. She said in a statement that she planned to countersue him for defamation.
Okorocha said he doesn’t regret taking the case, though it has come with costs.
After the scandal broke, a disgruntled former client bought the domain name okorieokorocha.com and set up a site disparaging Okorocha’s legal abilities. Okorocha is suing him.