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.
But as he read on, the business mogul grew livid. The article also unearthed family secrets that had been whispered about in Washington for decades:
Feld's late father, Irvin -- a legendary impresario, a man he revered, and from whom he'd inherited the circus -- was a closeted homosexual, the article claimed. ("An absolute lie," Feld would later say.) It implied that his mother killed herself because she couldn't change Irvin's sexual orientation and viewed herself as a failure, "both as a woman and as a wife." It portrayed Ken Feld himself as a tightwad who callously cut his only sibling, Karen, out of the family fortune.
The aggrieved CEO could have picked up the phone and complained to Bill Regardie, publisher of the now-defunct, 60,000-circulation magazine. They traveled in the same elite social circles and shared a nodding acquaintance. Regardie says he would have happily given Feld a couple of pages of space to vent in the next issue. But Regardie never heard from him; neither did any of the magazine's editors.
Feld also could have called Pottker and chewed her out. He could have threatened a lawsuit. He didn't.
Instead Feld, who once described himself to a reporter as "very much the kind of person who wants to be in control," took another approach. A covert one. Court papers allege that Feld, at an estimated expense of $2.3 million, authorized master spy Clair George to carry out a CIA-style operation to make sure the circus knew what Jan Pottker was doing and writing.
It lasted more than seven years.Epic Legal Battle
Feld, 57, who is worth $725 million by Forbes magazine's 2004 estimate, also lives in Potomac, in a mansion not far from Pottker and Fishel's more modest neighborhood. But it's unlikely they would ever speak to one another -- except in court. Today they are intractable adversaries joined in an epic legal battle that began in 1999 and has consumed the energies of four consecutive D.C. Superior Court judges.
In a lawsuit, the couple portrays Feld as a malicious, vindictive man who ordered wiretapping, bugging and surveillance in a scheme to "destroy" Pottker because he hated the magazine article she'd written about him. Feld planted a mole in her life, a "false friend" who posed as her business partner, torpedoed her career and steered her away from writing a book on the circus, the suit alleges.
Claiming invasion of privacy, fraud and infliction of mental distress, Pottker and Fishel seek more than $60 million in actual and punitive damages. Feld declined to comment for this article, but his attorneys call the allegations "outlandish" and "baseless."
Feld's legal filings do acknowledge that the circus paid operatives to monitor Pottker from 1990 to 1997 -- and also set up two non-circus book deals to distract her from reporting on Feld's enterprises. But they say nobody did anything illegal. And in their view, the ruse helped, not hurt, her career.
It's not the only time Feld has been accused of spying on his perceived enemies. Allegations of illegal surveillance, theft of documents and infiltration are part of a suit against Feld filed in Fairfax Circuit Court by the activist group PETA, which has long opposed Ringling Bros.' use of animal acts. Feld's attorneys are contesting the suit, but details of their position are under seal and not publicly available.
A corporate attorney, Julie Alexa Strauss, told The Washington Post: "Mr. Feld will wait for the cases to be resolved in the appropriate forums in accordance with the courts' legal processes, and he expects to prevail completely."Project Preempt
During his long CIA career, Clair George was a highly regarded covert operations officer, an ebullient character known for his bravery and ability to handle crises in overseas hotspots. He rose to become chief of the agency's global clandestine service in the mid-1980s, only to see his career derailed by the Iran-contra scandal. Caught up in a grinding independent counsel's investigation, George was put on trial twice and convicted once, in 1992, on two felony counts of lying to a congressional committee. (Later he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.)
As his legal bills mounted, George went to work as a consultant on "international issues" for Feld Entertaiment. Now 75 and ailing, he declined to comment -- he's also a defendant in the suit brought by Pottker and her husband -- but his role in the Pottker operation is detailed in contracts, memos and depositions that have since become part of the voluminous record in the case.
By October 1990 -- two months after the Regardie's story appeared -- George had already discovered that Pottker wanted to expand her Regardie's piece into an unauthorized biography of Irvin Feld, to be titled "Highwire." After getting his hands on a copy of her book proposal, George set into motion a plan that he would later refer to in a "top secret" memo to Feld as Project Preempt.
Fearing a scandalous treatment of his father, Feld signed a contract paying George $3,000 a week to oversee preparation of an authorized, "quality" book about the family business, according to court records. George had other duties, too:
"I undertook a series of efforts to find out what Pottker was doing and reported on the results of my work to Mr. Feld," he said in an affidavit. "I prepared my reports in writing and presented them to Mr. Feld in personal meetings."
George also devised a plan to "divert" Pottker from writing potential exposs about the circus, whether for other magazines or in a book. She wanted to probe the circus's child-labor practices and treatment of animals, among other topics, but the ex-CIA man took a dim view of her journalistic enterprise.
"Ms. Pottker is a professional mudslinger who was spending most of her time writing derogatory and tasteless pieces about the Feld family," George said in a deposition. "And it so came to pass that we decided that we would lead her astray from that and have her do something else."
The expert spook hired a onetime journalist named Robert Eringer, whom he described as a "very close friend," to help carry out the Pottker operation. George paid him $1,500 a week.
According to Pottker's suit, Eringer's mission was to worm his way into her life, becoming her confidant, editor and book "packager." He steered her toward researching other famous and fractious families, including the Rockefellers, the Mars candy clan and the Hafts of Washington.
A Rockefeller book, Eringer predicted in an early memo, "will side-track Pottker for many months to come -- probably a couple of years -- and this will mean she must relegate any possible Ringling book project to a back burner."
Eventually Pottker published two books that Feld had a secret hand in: "Crisis in Candyland," an unauthorized look at the Mars chocolate family, in 1995; and "Celebrity Washington," a small guidebook to the homes of media and political figures, in 1996. A Feld company even paid for the $25,000 advance on "Crisis in Candyland." Both books had small publishers and limited print runs.
In self-congratulatory memos, the operatives told Feld that they considered their mission successful. "Pottker is expending all of her time and energy on the two projects we packaged for her," says a report from the mid-'90s. "She has had no time to even think about Ringling Brothers. Our projects have effectively diverted her from the new investigation into Ringling."
It's not clear how frequently the so-called Pottker memos were produced, because many documents in the suit have been placed under seal. They're undated and unsigned, though most were likely written by Eringer. Some were spare, others detailed and chatty.
"Pottker is driving to New York City this weekend with her husband and two daughters," one says. "She has an appointment with a top NYC hairdresser to highlight her hair (she had to book this appointment six weeks in advance -- and she is very excited.)"
Another: "Pottger [sic] has found several black boys from a housing project who used to perform for Ringling and who sustained injuries during their employment. 'They make you work when you're sick,' she quotes one, 'for bad pay.' "
Another: "Pottker continues her contact with [Sen.] Howard Metzenbaum's office. She says that a Metzenbaum staffer phoned a staffer in Senator Christopher Dodd's office to discuss including the circus in child labor hearings."
One of the later memos reports: "Pottker is surprised by the level of anger from those who appeared in her Washington guide book. . . . She continues to talk from time to time about a book on Ringling Brothers."Barnumized
Eringer, 51, is one of the more colorful, yet opaque, characters in this tale. He has lived for periods in Monaco, London and Washington. He has written a dozen books, many of them slim volumes from obscure publishing houses. Recent titles suggest a focus on madness and spying (e.g., "Spookeroonie" and "Granny's Lost Her Marbles"). George blurbed Eringer's 2000 novel, "Parallel Truths," saying, "No one writes a funnier novel about modern day spying. . . . It is clear that he understands espionage."
Pottker's lawsuit, which also lists Eringer as a defendant, implies that he is an ex-CIA employee. He declined to answer that question in an e-mail exchange from London, where he now lives. "I am a writer," Eringer told The Post.
Meanwhile he also runs a bar called Bedlam, which offers free dessert to customers who can prove they're insane or have spent time in an asylum. It also boasts of having a piece of Vincent van Gogh's severed ear on display.
Eringer denies wrongdoing in the Pottker operation and has joined Feld in seeking to have the suit dismissed. "It is just not true to say we sabotaged her career," he says.
He also once put this statement on his bar's Web site:
"Some lady has complained that she was fooled, that she was fooled for eight years, and that I personally sucked her brain of all its innermost secrets. Go figure. . . . The full story of how this lady Barnumized herself will one day be told."An Unexpected Tip
Jan Pottker probably wouldn't have discovered any of this if not for a disgruntled circus executive named Charles Smith. As Feld Entertainment's chief financial officer, he was privy to payments made to George, Eringer and various private eyes whom Feld allegedly dispatched to infiltrate animal protection groups, including the Performing Animal Welfare Society in California and PETA, based in Norfolk.
Smith himself seemed to have a fixation with bugging and surveillance. "He had five tape recorders laying on his desk," Joel Kaplan, a former director of security for Feld, said in a deposition. "He had a punch bowl, a party-size punch bowl with 150 tapes in it. . . . He had boxes of empty tapes. . . . He had videotapes."
Smith was fired in 1997after Fairfax police arrested him on suspicion of surreptitiously videotaping his girlfriend, a circus employee whom he suspected of cheating on him. Authorities concluded that no crime was committed and dropped the charges.
But Smith took Feld to court in a battle over compensation in which Smith alleged that his boss wasted corporate assets on retribution against enemies. Smith's suit claimed that Feld "improperly disbursed large sums of corporate monies to combat and thwart groups he perceives as opposed to the interests of Feld."
In June 1998, Smith's attorneys obtained an affidavit from Clair George laying out the Pottker operation. (George also mentioned "surveillance of, and efforts to counter, the activities of various animal rights groups.") That fall, Smith arranged a meeting with Pottker at a Chevy Chase restaurant and spilled his guts.
He told her that Feld had been gathering information about her for years. In a later deposition, Smith said he'd even seen Feld in a conference room at Ringling headquarters, watching a video of Pottker. The video was taken at a mall, probably with a tiny camera that looked like a wristwatch.
To confirm the snooping, Smith told Pottker to visit the federal courthouse in Alexandria, where his suit against Feld was filed, and fish out George's sworn statement and the attached "Pottker memos." (Smith, 60, who settled his suit against Feld for $6.5 million, signed a non-disclosure agreement and would not comment.)
Pottker describes reading the file as an out-of-body experience: "I felt like I was observing things from the ceiling. The scales fell off my eyes."
Everything started to snap into place: "The car that had been sitting in front of my home, the constant clicks on the phone, all the bad breaks I'd had in publishing. . . .
"And imagine seeing the memos about my life that were sent on a regular basis to Kenneth Feld. Detailed things about my kids, my haircuts, a party I'm giving, the editors I'm talking to."
Seeing Clair George's statements, "I thought I was going to pass out. I had to go to the ladies' room to collect myself."
Her husband was with her. As managing director of the Federal Communications Commission, Fishel wields power over a considerable bureaucracy, but that day he felt "frightened and helpless," he says. "When you realize that it's an ex-CIA agent you're up against, you realize there's nothing the average middle-class person can do."
But should he have known? "It eats me up," he says, sitting in his living room with his wife. "The feeling that I did not protect my family. I failed them."A Career as a Writer
Pottker and Fishel met as undergraduates at American University, married in 1969, earned advanced degrees at Columbia University and wrote two academic books together. Returning to Washington, both became civil servants, but her goal, she says, was to write books full time. While raising two daughters and working as a policy analyst at the Department of Education, she wrote on nights and weekends.
In 1987, with a co-author, she published "Dear Ann, Dear Abby: The Unauthorized Biography of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren," which sold well. Then she cast around for a solo project and settled on a book about corporate titans -- which led her to interview Ken Feld in 1988 (the only time they met). She says she scored an advance of just under six figures to write "Born to Power: Heirs to America's Leading Businesses."
In 1990 she started shopping a proposal for a biography of Irvin Feld. Court documents indicate that Eringer obtained a copy of the proposal from Pottker's then-agent and gave it to Clair George. And for the next few years, Pottker claims, her writing career suffered because it was secretly steered by Feld, via Eringer, whom she considered her business partner. She ended up taking a much lower advance on the Mars book, for example, than she got for "Born to Power."
"I certainly had the background to be successful, and yet I kept running into roadbloacks and I had no idea why this was," she says. "I felt I was failing in my chosen career. I had to continue in a salaried job and I began feeling hopeless in the early '90s. I feel I lost 10 years of my career due to Ken Feld's puppeteering. Those are years I'll never get back, important years."
And that, essentially, is why she sued Feld, George, Eringer and others in 1999. But justice has been neither swift nor satisfying. The case has been stalled by seemingly endless pretrial maneuvering, including days of depositions for Pottker's daughters and her now 90-year-old mother. The couple's attorney, Roger Simmons, wears a weary expression as he talks about scaling the mountain of motions filed by the heavyweight Washington law firms retained by the circus.
"Feld, that is what he does -- he overwhelms you," says Simmons. "It's like 'Bleak House.' " The docket sheet alone runs 600 pages.
Simmons works out of a converted old home in Frederick, where the entire third floor is given over to boxes of pleadings and documents amassed in the case. He estimates Feld has spent at least $6 million fighting the suit so far. That's on top of the substantial sum the circus spent on the Pottker operation.
(One of the lead attorneys for Feld -- Barry S. Simon of Williams & Connolly -- did not return calls; the other -- Joseph T. Small of Fulbright & Jaworski-- declined to comment.)
A couple years ago, Simmons found help in the form of famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, who kicked in $350,000 for legal expenses and argued in court for Pottker. Though Cochran died of a brain tumor last year, his firm continues to support the case. Cochran called what happened to the writer an "outrageous attack on a free press."
Pottker puts it this way: "If he's allowed to get away with it, then any rich man, any rich corporation, can do this to anyone they want."
But Feld's attorneys portray the whole operation as benign -- "the memos contain essentially no personal information about Pottker," they write -- and, besides, "plaintiffs can point to no evidence that CIA-type activities involving a physical threat were ever contemplated or employed against Pottker."
They also argue that Eringer, the mole in her life, "actually helped Pottker publish two books."
Whatever her setbacks in the 1990s, Pottker's writing career did survive the Mars book and celebrity guide. With her daughters grown, Pottker no longer had school activities to oversee and Girl Scout troops to run. In recent years she has found a niche writing biographies about influential political women: Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis and her mother, Janet Lee Auchincloss; and Sara Delano Roosevelt and her daughter-in-law, Eleanor Roosevelt. Both were published by St. Martin's Press.
But she has yet to write the book she planned 15 years ago, the one about the circus.A Cloak of Secrecy
Ken Feld has never talked to the media about the Pottker case. He declined when Salon.com did an exhaustive two-part report in 2001 and when "60 Minutes" revisited the matter in 2003. Meanwhile, a cloak of secrecy has been woven around the case in the form of sealing orders, many of them sought by Feld's attorneys.
When he grants interviews, Feld typically touts his admiration for his father and love for the circus. As he told The Post's Sunday magazine a couple of years ago, "My heart and soul is always in the show."
He was born into the entertainment business, the only son of Irvin Feld, who got his start in the 1930s selling elixirs at Maryland fairs, then opened a drugstore in the District and branched into record sales. He became a renowned promoter of live concerts and teen idol rock-and-roll acts, including Paul Anka, Chubby Checker, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and the Big Bopper. (Indeed, the elder Feld once claimed: "I really invented rock-and-roll. I made the market.")
After their mother's suicide in 1958, young Kenneth and Karen Feld were raised by their aunt and uncle. Irvin bought Ringling Bros. in 1967, and for maximum PR value staged the contract signing at an ancient circus venue, the Colosseum in Rome.
The showman traveled the country and the world -- "and used his tightly knit circus community to hide his sexuality," Pottker wrote in the book proposal that so angered his son. "Irvin's story is one of a brilliant and flamboyant man who indeed saved the Greatest Show on Earth, but whose private life was beyond repair."
After graduating from college in 1970, Kenneth went on the road to learn the Big Top business from his father, and he was clearly the favored child. When Irvin Feld died in 1984, his will effectively disinherited his daughter.
Pottker described the bitter battle between the siblings in her Regardie's article and in a proposed book chapter called "Brother Dearest." After their father's death, the article says, Ken sought to evict his sister from her Georgetown home -- which was still in Irvin Feld's name.
"I mean, there wasn't any reason, it was just a nasty thing," Karen Feld told Pottker in the magazine article. Her brother also took possession of her new BMW, a birthday present from her dad. "He didn't need another BMW with all his Rollses," Karen declared.
She also told Pottker angrily: "I knew from an early age that I could never count on my family when I needed them." Now a social columnist for the Washington Examiner, she declined to comment to The Post; the siblings are estranged to this day.
Ken adored his dad. In an interview for a CNN profile in 1992, Ken Feld said of Irvin, "You met him even for five minutes and he made an impact upon your life." He described his father, who favored loud suits and pinkie rings, as an "emotional guy," adding, "I am maybe more of an introvert than what he was."
Talking about his mother's suicide when he was 9 years old, Feld said: "It had an impact. It probably -- it manifests itself in maybe the way I am today."
And his philosophy of life? To Ken Feld, it all boiled down to one word: "Honesty."Not Moving On
Some who know Feld call him a soft-spoken, gentle, unpretentious family man who doesn't put on the airs of somebody who counts moguls like Michael Eisner among his peers. Critics call him coldblooded in his business dealings, but that charge doesn't bother him -- he said as much after Pottker's original article ran.
"The reason I and the rest of the family was so mad was not because of what was said about me," Feld explained in a draft of the circus-funded, unpublished biography of his father. "What they said about me was simply that I'm unemotional and a bastard in business. So what?
"But to say that Irvin was a homosexual -- what did that prove? That charge is an absolute lie. . . . I can't buy the statements about his alleged sexual preference contributing to my mother's death. . . . My mother's condition predated her marriage to my father. That's a fact. I resented that aspect of the story. . . . And yes, I was embarrassed for my father's memory."
One friend of Feld's, who declined to be identified, sees Feld's response as understandable, "when something cuts so close to home. . . . It was too close to the bone."
In conversation, Pottker's emotions flare between hot anger -- "Kenneth Feld is a stalker. . . . Kenneth Feld is a very twisted man" -- and a cold-eyed determination to never give up the battle. Nineteen bankers' boxes full of court documents line the walls of her basement. Buried in them somewhere is the original contract she signed with Regardie's for the 11,000-word article.
"Five thousand dollars and misery ever since," she says.
The boxes also hold this memo written by Eringer: "Pottker and I discussed other authors and how tragic it is when they become obsessed by their stories and cannot move on. We agreed that there are many good stories in the world and that if one doesn't work, the author should let it go and tackle other stories."
But it should be obvious why Jan Pottker cannot move on. The story isn't over yet.