The trio of entertainment industry billionaire, convicted former spy and failed writer who sought to ruin a journalist’s life, are still free because they are beyond the reach of privacy laws.
Perhaps the only reason why the story of Jan Pottker has never been made into a movie is that justice has not been served. The popcorn-munching public would be left angry that a circus impresario with too much money could ruin the life of an investigative journalist with the help of a spy-gone-bad and a narcissistic writer.
Even if a drama with no happy ending, the movie might be still be worth making, because it is relevant for today: Pottker is a poster figure for why privacy is vital, and what can happen if it is invaded. She did not just have her phone tapped or credit card number cloned – she had her entire career, and with it life, trajectory altered to be “distracted” from a story the circus family did not want her to write. It went on for eight years.
Just the family
Kenneth Feld is the CEO of Feld Entertainment, a company that owns Barnum & Bailey Circus and Ringling Bros and also produced Disney on Ice shows as well as Las Vegas performances. This year, Forbes estimated him to be a billionaire worth around $1.8 billion.
If Feld’s court cases are anything to go by, he is greedy and vindictive. He battled for years with his sister, Karen, over the inheritance, and she claimed her brother had kicked her out of her home and even a memorial service for their aunt. The lawsuit in 2011 and its counter-lawsuit were both dismissed.
Another lawsuit came from a former chief financial officer at Feld, Charles Smith, who sued the company for €274,000 in lost wages (they eventually settled for more than $6m), and various animal rights groups have also taken legal action as the circus uses animal performance acts.
Crucially, it was Smith who tipped of the unknowing Pottker about the dark works of Feld against her.
In 1990 Pottker, who lives in Potomac near Washington, wrote a lengthy investigative story on the Feld family for a now-defunct local business magazine, Regardies. It claimed that Feld’s father, Irvin, was a closet homosexual, and that his mother had killed herself because she saw herself as a failure as a woman. The article also portrayed Feld as a tightwad who cut his sister Karen out of the inheritance.
Feld, another Potomac resident, was displeased with the article, to put it mildly. He would have had a number of options: complain to the magazine, which would happily have printed his side of the story according to its then-publisher, or he could have sued for libel.
Instead, Feld went on a life-altering vendetta against Pottker, who was planning on writing an unauthorized biography about the Felds.
Feld hired Clair George, a former CIA deputy director under Ronald Regan who in 1987 was convicted of lying to a Congressional committee over his role in the Iran-Contra affair. The scandal made George and untouchable in security circles, but also a man grateful for a private assignment. Feld paid George $3,000 a week as a “consultant” for surveillance and interference – the plan was to keep Pottker busy with other projects, to take her mind off the Feld story. He would prepare written weekly reports on absolutely every detail of Pottker’s life, including her phone conversations and even hair appointments. One read: “Pottker is driving to New York City this weekend with her husband and two daughters. 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.”
Other memos detail her work and her reactions to critics – as well as her continued interest in writing the unauthorized biography about the Feld dynasty, and sources she identified for the book.
George and Feld came up with a wicked plan, for which they needed one more man: to distract Pottker with writing about other wealthy, industrious families. Enter Robert Eringer, a one-time tabloid journalist and struggling writer who liked to mingle in intelligence circles. The native Californian never finished college, and spent time working for a London-based tabloid and was later hired – and fired complete with lengthy libel lawsuits – as an intelligence consultant by the principality of Monaco.
Eringer had claimed to have uncovered links between the tiny Mediterranean state and the Russian underworld and proceeded to smear Prince Albert II and members of his staff. The links remain unproven. (Although the Monaco episode occurred in the first decade of this 2000s, so after the Pottker affair, it shows Eringer’s unrelenting willingness to smear for his own personal gain.)
As a friend of George, Eringer clearly shares the twisted mindset that was required for the operation. Eringer was tasked to pose as a literary agent, a “book packager” who would infiltrate Pottker’s life, gain her trust and sidetrack her with other projects – anything to keep her off the Feld family’s back. He was paid $1,500 a week for becoming a key figure in Pottker’s life.
Admittedly, she did publish two books while an unwitting pawn in the game. Her book about the Mars family, “Crisis in Candyland”, was met with a $25,000 advance, and published by National Press Books, which later was named as a co-defendant. Little did Pottker know that the advance had, in fact, come out of Feld’s pocket and was funneled through various accounts to appear as the publisher’s advance. The book was pulled off the shelves shortly after publication, because National Press refused to pay for image rights. Another book, “Celebrity Washington”, also resulted out of this arrangement, both being published in 1995.
The victim, now in her mid-sixties, would probably never have found out about this abhorrent infringement of her life had it not been for Charles Smith. When he sued Feld for loss of income, he decided to come clean about the dealings of his former boss and told Pottker about an affidavit his lawyers had secured from George – if she looked up the “Pottker memos” in a court house in Alexandria, where he had filed his suit against Feld, she would find out about the spying operation that was now, in 1998, in its eights year. (Smith’s lawsuit centered on Feld’s use of corporate money to fund personal vendettas, such as the one against Pottker, therefore the affidavit from George was necessary. His claim for loss of income concerned mainly stock options.)
The Truman Show moment
Pottker, in an interview with the Washington Post, described her first viewing of the files as an out-of-body experience, and how all of a sudden, everything fell 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.”
Pottker’s husband, Andrew Fishel, who was a senior official at the Federal Communications Commission, told the same reporter he had felt “frightened and helpless” upon learning about this unbelievable intrusion of their private life. “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.”
While the couple’s anger and subsequent lawsuit was directed at Feld, who after all commissioned and paid an estimated $2.3m for the operation, it was Robert Eringer who performed the greatest act of deceit in this drama. It was he who actually infiltrated their lives, gained their trust and kept up the charade for the best part of a decade. Eringer clearly enjoyed his deceitfulness: although he published some novels himself, none of them became great successes, and today he is reduced to self-publishing eBooks. Sabotaging another writer’s career, while himself posing as the spy he so longed to be, must have been the perfect assignment for the man who psychiatrist Marie-Jeanne Dubois in a case study diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
Pottker sued Feld, George, Eringer and a host of bit players in this saga for $120m for invasion of privacy, interference in business relationships infliction of emotional distress, fraud, conspiracy and breach of contractual obligations. The case 99-008068 in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia went on for several years after being continuously delayed by Feld’s highly paid lawyers – his legal bills topped $6m. The victims were helped by various lawyers working pro bono, and eventually they settled out of court. It is not known how much the settlement was for, and Pottker said she had no desire to ever write about the Feld family again.
Why write about this now? Because privacy has never been as high on the agenda as it is now. Edward Snowden’s revelations about state surveillance have shown there are no limits to snooping and spying. And what happens when a spy goes rogue, as is the case of Clair George, was chillingly experienced by Pottker and her family.
To train marksmen for the police entails the danger that they might shoot and kill in private as well. To train a spy for the secret service entails the danger that they might spy and play puppet-masters in private as well. But unlike in the case of a murder, the justice system is not equipped to deal with the loss and invasion of privacy as experienced by Pottker.
Today, Eringer lives a peaceful life in Santa Barbara. He owns a bar, runs numerous blogs and continues to publish defamations and conspiracy theories about previous employers (in particular Monaco’s royal family). George, too, remains a free man, and Feld is now a member of the billionaire’s club. No court stops them from doing the same again. And as we know thanks to Snowden, the data available to the security services makes the lives of clowns on a vendetta easier than ever before.
You have been warned.