Send In The Clowns

Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel
Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel have waged a seven-year court battle against Kenneth Feld, head of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus empire. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

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By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

"Front door open," a robotic voice warns whenever anyone enters the home of author Jan Pottker, who lives in a deeply wooded corner of Potomac. The elaborate security system doesn't seem out of the ordinary, at first -- life in a prosperous suburb requires a measure of caution.

Then Pottker starts talking about seeing strange cars lingering on her street and hearing odd noises on her phone line. And how she discovered that many things in her secluded little world were not as they seemed. For years, covert operatives monitored her activities: her book and magazine projects, her travel plans, even her hair appointments.

It was like something out of "The Truman Show," says Pottker, a petite, soft-featured woman of 57. "I'll never get the years back that they were in my life." Then, her voice rises in anger: "They had no right to interfere with my life."

She is sitting in the stillness of her high-ceilinged home with her husband, Andrew Fishel, also 57, who has the placid manner of a longtime federal bureaucrat (which he is). "You feel that your life has been kidnapped in a sense, and you didn't know it," he says evenly. "Potentially all of your intimate thoughts and activities have been shared with someone who is out for vengeance against you."

You might expect such statements from delusional types who inhabit park benches wearing tinfoil hats. But Pottker and Fishel -- married 36 years, holders of doctoral degrees, accomplished people -- can easily justify their paranoia. The infiltration of their lives, it turns out, was overseen by the former head of worldwide covert operations for the CIA, an Iran-contra scandal figure named Clair E. George. They have documented as much in a lawsuit.

But who would possibly care about what this utterly normal couple was doing?

Clues lead to Feld Entertainment in Tysons Corner, the headquarters of one of the largest entertainment companies in the world. It is owned by a megamillionare who prides himself on operating a business devoted to family fun and all-American values. He runs the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Step right up, folks: It's the weirdest show on Earth.

* * *

The tale begins on a summer day 15 years ago when CEO Kenneth Feld opened his copy of Regardie's, a slick magazine that covered the Washington business scene. He turned to Page 44 and began reading a lengthy article about himself. It was written by Pottker, a freelancer who had once interviewed him for a book about corporate heirs.

Headlined "The Family Circus," the piece began flatteringly enough, portraying Feld as a hands-on executive committed to providing quality entertainment.

"Just like his father before him, Ken Feld has saved an American institution," Pottker wrote. What's more, he had doubled the revenue of his privately held company with a wholesome, magical touch that extended beyond the circus to Feld Entertainment's Disney on Ice productions and Vegas shows.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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