DOCUMENT: Investigation

Celeb Dirt To Be Sold? You Better Call Keith

A profile of the lawyer behind Trump "hush" deals

Keith Davidson

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Keith Davidson

Davidson did not answer subsequent questions about the propriety of such a transaction with a client, especially since it afforded him direct benefits like dismissal of the lawsuit and settlement language stating he had not violated professional conduct rules. Davidson also did not reply when asked if Falls was represented by separate counsel in the copyright transaction.

Falls told TSG that he did not receive any money in return for handing over the sex  tape and its copyright. Falls was not one of the individuals copied on the settlement proposal Davidson sent to Tequila’s lawyer. Davidson noted in the e-mail that he was on a 90-day suspension and was only representing himself.

In that e-mail, which was also sent to Vivid executive Bill Asher and the company’s attorney, Davidson appeared to try and curry favor with the porn film distributor (which was working in tandem with Tequila’s lawyer). “I have no axe to grind with Vivid,” Davidson wrote. “In fact, I like to think that I have always been a fan, if not a friend of Vivid’s.” The personal injury lawyer then took credit for his prior “dissuading” of legal claims that at least two porn actresses sought to pursue against Vivid. One woman alleged that she had been abused by Asher, while another actress had complained about unsanitary conditions on Vivid video shoots.

Six weeks after Tequila sued Davidson, Charlie Sheen filed a lawsuit accusing the attorney of conspiring with a client--porn actress Capri Anderson--to fabricate details of a purported assault in a bid to “shake down Sheen for at least a million dollars.” The complaint, filed by Hollywood litigator Martin Singer, noted that Sheen “refused to give in to the extortionate demand.” A day after the alleged assault at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Singer wrote, Anderson “promptly retained an attorney in Los Angeles...and decided this was her opportunity to cash in.” While referred to in the lawsuit, Davidson was not identified by name.

Blatt, who first ccontacted Anderson, quickly put the actress together with Davidson. After a meeting at the Mondrian in West Hollywood, Anderson agreed to representation by the attorney.

Anderson’s allegations against Sheen would be the subject of a series of TMZ exclusives, one of which reported--three days after the Plaza incident--that Anderson “had lawyered up, hiring a high-profile Beverly Hills attorney.” Another story reported that Anderson’s attorney had e-mailed Sheen’s lawyer to report that the porn actress had retained counsel.

Thanks to his debauched ways, Sheen became an annuity of sorts for Davidson, who represented a series of clients who pursued successful legal claims against the performer (whose middle daughter once attended the same private school as Davidson’s sons). Since the Anderson matter appeared to be a winner, Davidson was willing to foot certain expenses, like a hotel room and spending money for the 22-year-old accuser. Asked, in general, about such outlays, Davidson said, “If you have a case that you think has substantial value, then you’re probably more apt to pay for expenses or provide advances on the settlement to the client.”

While Davidson’s work on Anderson’s behalf was typical of his celebrity cases, there was one important difference: His law license was suspended when he took on the case and he remained barred from practicing for a month afterwards. When Davidson initially contacted Singer, Sheen’s counsel, to discuss an “urgent” matter, he was under suspension. When Davidson subsequently spoke with Singer over the phone and made a $1 million demand on Anderson’s behalf, he was under suspension. When Davidson arranged with Good Morning America to appear with Anderson on the ABC morning show, he was under suspension.

Questioned about practicing while his license was suspended, Davidson said that he was extremely careful during the 90 days he was supposed to be sidelined. Asked if he had slipped up, the lawyer replied, “No, I didn’t.” Davidson pledged to research the timing of his contacts with Singer, but he failed to respond to subsequent TSG questions about those communications.

During one interview, Davidson told TSG that only a small percentage of his caseload--no more than 15 percent--involved celebrity matters. The balance of his practice, he added, was mundane personal injury claims. It is hard to tell whether Davidson’s estimate is accurate, but a desire to lowball the number of sex tape, celebrity STD, and Charlie Sheen cases is understandable. In light of Davidson’s Trump settlements, his practice has been reduced--at least in some social media circles--to a caricature: He’s the sleazy Hollywood attorney who crafts hush money agreements when he is not busy engaging in what one CNN commentator termed “legal extortion.” Davidson said that he was an “easy target” and expressed frustration at how, during one civil case in which he was not a party, a plaintiff’s counsel stopped referring to him by his name and instead just called him “the extortionist.”

It is difficult to quantify the number of sex tape matters that Davidson has handled. But for about a decade, the lawyer has been immersed in celebrity skin, from actress Minka Kelly to Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer. In 2012, two separate Kanye West sex tapes were “being shopped to media outlets,” TMZ’s Walters reported. Both tapes--one of which a Davidson client possessed--were bought back by the rapper, who blamed a traitorous relative. In the 2016 song “Real Friends,” a bitter West rapped, “I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fuckin’ bitches on / Paid that nigga 250 thousand just to get it from him.”

When conducting a sex tape negotiation, Davidson, though across the table, seeks to portray himself as someone there to help the celebrity. “I’m not a bad guy. When I get a case, if I have something I’ll let you know I have it,” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s this thing floating around, would you like me to get involved? Would you like me to help you take it off the market?’” Davidson is quick to add, “Look, it’s not all altruistic...I make money, too.”

Davidson--who could probably lecture on extortion statutes--is a careful negotiator not prone to threats. Still, while he earnestly offers to help you take compromising material “off the market,” celebrities must sense that an “or else” hangs in the air, unspoken. If West did not spend a fortune to recover his laptop, was it going to just collect dust in his cousin’s closet? If Kelly showed no interest in the tape shot when she was a teenager, would the ex-boyfriend of the “Friday Night Lights” star lose interest in an easy payday?

While at TMZ, Walters manned the sex tape desk. An exclusive about a video’s existence would be followed by a story describing the erotic action which would then yield to a piece about a purported bidding war that had erupted for the video. Aided by Davidson and Blatt, Walters crafted story arcs that became as predictable as Harvey Levin’s snug muscle shirts. The site’s sex tape coverage effectively amounted to a friendly reminder to celebrities that it would be a shrewd decision to write a check to corral any wayward videotapes.

For years, Walters was Davidson’s most important entertainment industry contact. As head of TMZ’s news operation, the 37-year-old Walters had access to the gossip industry’s single most valuable commodity: the web site’s e-mail and phone tip lines, which are flooded daily with scores of dropped dimes and offers. It is hard to overstate the value of the TMZ tip lines, which are often the first point of contact for those seeking to cash in on celebrity dirt in all its forms.

Walters referred Davidson to sources and subjects of TMZ stories, vouching for the lawyer’s bona fides. For instance, when a former Playboy Playmate accused Hugh Hefner’s oldest son of assaulting her, Walters referred the woman to Davidson for legal representation. After a series of exclusives about the alleged assault, TMZ capped its coverage with a story that noted the Playmate had “lawyered up with powerhouse attorney Keith Davidson.”     

Walters was also responsible for steering a Betty Ford Center employee named Dawn Holland to Davidson. Holland claimed to have been battered one evening by a drunken Lindsay Lohan, who was being treated at the Rancho Mirage clinic. Holland, a technician, was subsequently fired from her job for violating patient confidentiality by speaking with TMZ about the Lohan incident and providing the web site with a confidential medical record.   

Holland, herself a recovering addict, had spoken to local police about the confrontation with Lohan, but ceased cooperating with the authorities after she hired Davidson the day after her termination. TMZ paid Holland at least $10,000, with the funds being sent to Davidson’s client trust account.

Before eventually being fired by Holland, Davidson worked with Lohan’s father Michael to try and set up a deal to sell photos of Holland and Lohan meeting to bury the hatchet. Owen McIntosh, who replaced Davidson, said that his predecessor’s actions “were not appropriate,” especially with regard to his dealings with Michael Lohan. Davidson’s actions, he added, were “not something that I would have done nor any attorney that I know of that understands law and obligations to a client.”

While Walters was sending business to Davidson--including a nearly disastrous referral in the Hulk Hogan sex tape case--the lawyer was providing legal services to the TMZ employee and at least one of his family members, records show. Davidson is listed as Walters’s “retained attorney” in connection with a 2014 traffic court case in Orange County, where Walters resides. Davidson also incorporated a company for Walters. Formed in July 2010, KMW Holdings, Inc. listed its address as Davidson’s Beverly Hills office.

Walters’s connection to the company was first revealed in a February 2013 disclosure filing with California’s Secretary of State. That document identifies Walters as the firm’s CEO and sole officer. KMW Holdings, which still listed its address as Davidson’s office, described the nature of its business as “marketing consultation.” Corporate filings offer no further insight into the nature of the consulting services performed by Walters. In addition to doing legal work for Walters, Davidson said that he also handled a “minor matter” for Walters’s father (and may have handled a court case for a third family member).

In reply to questions about whether he was paid for his Walters family work, Davidson said he was unsure. “I think I billed his father for costs, I think,” Davidson said. As for Mike Walters, the lawyer first said that he thought he had been paid, but then added, “I’m not sure...I might have just done it because we were friends.”

Davidson was similarly noncommittal on the subject of “tipping” Walters for client referrals. “Not that I recall” was followed by Davidson saying, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” He concluded, “One, I don’t want to lie to you. And two, I don’t want to ever have an adverse effect on someone else’s life.”

When TSG first sought to question Walters--who was then still at TMZ--about the ethical implications of his dealings with Davidson, he did not reply to questions that he asked to be e-mailed to him. When later reached on his cell phone, Walters pretended to be someone else.

Last month, Walters again asked for questions to be e-mailed so that, “I can give it to my people.” Before hanging up, Walters was asked if he had ever been compensated by Davidson for steering clients to him. “Bill, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “Just e-mail if you want, dude.” In a subsequent statement, Walters’s lawyer said, “Although the absurdity of your questions warrant no response whatsoever, it is unfortunate that my client cannot respond.” Walters last year founded The Blast, a TMZ wannabe funded by Banijay Group, a multinational media firm.

Walters and TMZ have not covered all of Davidson’s sex scandal cases, especially if they were only celebrity-adjacent matters that involved names unrecognizable to gossip fans accustomed to stories about the Kardashians, Real Housewives, and the latest rap world beef.

In June 2013, two blogs--Nik Richie’s The Dirty and Porn News Today--published photos showing a wealthy business executive seated on a bed kissing and groping porn actress Samantha Saint. The man was Richard Nanula, a principal of Colony Capital, the private equity firm now headed by Thomas Barrack, who chaired the Trump inaugural committee. Nanula, now 57, was also chairman of Miramax, the film company Colony bought for $660 million from Disney (which had purchased the firm from Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob).

Nanula regularly employed prostitutes and, on occasion, would also pay porn stars for sex (known in the adult industry as doing a “private”). Though Nanula was wildly wealthy, he remained a man of simple pleasures: Adult actress Sarah Shevon recalled passing up $1500 to perform a “sloppy blowjob” on the businessman. The offer was relayed by Trinity St. Clair, a fellow actress who did not identify the oral sex-seeker.

Since some of the actresses Nanula wanted to have sex with did not do “privates,” the executive got creative. St. Clair booked several women to shoot sex scenes with an actor who used the stage name “Mr. Rich.” The resulting videos were purportedly destined for St. Clair’s web site, which today offers visitors a “custom jerk off video” for $250 and a pair of St. Clair’s used panties for $100. One of the adult performers duped by Nanula was Shevon, who said she was paid $300 cash for shooting a “BJ scene” with "Mr. Rich" at his Malibu estate.

Instead of appearing like the creepy old john that he was, Nanula had transformed himself into an actor-producer, just another lecherous Hollywood hyphenate.     

After the photos of Nanula leaked, friends of the businessman scrambled to contain the damage. It was not long before they sought Davidson’s assistance.

The attorney--who never formally represented Nanula--quickly got The Dirty to delete its post. Davidson then sent an e-mail to Porn News Today asking the site’s editor, Alexandra Mayers, to contact him “regarding an urgent matter.” During a subsequent phone conversation, Mayers recalled, Davidson tried to determine whether she would accept a “payoff” to delete the Nanula item. Mayers said she told the lawyer that the post would not be removed, “especially now that I know someone out there wants me to take it down.”

Part two of the cleanup effort required locating the women Nanula had fraudulently induced into committing acts of prostitution. Then came the financial settlements and the accompanying nondisclosure agreements.

While Davidson was eventually big-footed by a large L.A. law firm representing the financier, he remained in the Nanula matter, representing porn actresses who filmed sex scenes with “Mr. Rich.” One source told TSG that Davidson was aided in signing up the women as clients by Gina Rodriguez, one of his longtime referrers of business.

Though Davidson worked both sides of the Nanula matter, that was of little concern to the executive’s advisers. Everyone’s interests were aligned. No disqualifying conflicts existed. So why let Davidson’s particular set of skills go to waste?

* * *

Like Nanula, trouble arrived for Hulk Hogan via a blog post.

In early-March 2012, TMZ reported that a sex tape featuring the wrestler was being shopped to a “major porn studio.” The item, courtesy of Walters, noted that the site had been provided “grainy footage” showing Hogan consorting with an unknown woman. Also that “Hulk’s thong-shaped tan line” was visible. Later that day, Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) appeared on a TMZ webcast to say that he was secretly filmed without permission.

Five weeks later, a still from the Hogan sex tape appeared on The Dirty. A second photo was published by the blog two weeks later along with an ominous hint that the video contained material more embarrassing than Hogan’s tan line: “Terry, do you remember what you said about black people in this sex tape?” Upon seeing the stills, Hogan knew that the woman pictured was the wife of his best friend, Todd Clem, and that the video had been shot in the Clems's Tierra Verde, Florida home.  

Known as “Bubba the Love Sponge,” Clem was an abrasive shock jock with a history of Federal Communications Commission fines. Clem dominated the Tampa radio scene, where theatrical stunts, feuds, and shifting allegiances would be familiar to any wrestling fan. His crew included sidekicks known on-air as “Cowhead,” “Big Dick,” “Jabberjaw,” and “25 Cent.” At any one time, it seemed that a "Bubba" employee was plotting to either defect or dethrone the boss.

Within days of the initial TMZ story about the Hogan sex tape--which did not identify the wrestler’s sex partner--a one-page Word document (Hulk_Hogan_Sex_Tapes.doc) circulated among Clem’s underlings. It provided a graphic description of two separate sex tapes reportedly featuring Hogan and Heather Clem. On one tape, Hogan made racist comments and used the N-word, according to the synopsis.

The source of the Hogan leaks to TMZ and The Dirty was Matthew “Spice Boy” Loyd, an ex-intern who became a Clem co-host and grew to dislike the shock jock. Loyd says that he found the Hogan sex tapes inside a movie box set that he purchased at an annual “garage sale” fundraiser organized by Clem (Loyd supposedly was expecting to find “Rocky” movies inside the box). Law enforcement officials who later investigated how Loyd got the DVDs concluded that he swiped them from Clem’s office and planned to sell the explicit videos. Loyd, however, has never been charged with stealing the material.

Loyd contacted TMZ first because he had previously dealt with Walters on stories about Clem, the “Bubba” show, and Hogan, who was a regular Clem guest. Hogan and his family were often the subject of TMZ stories and videos, especially after the wrestler’s son Nick was arrested in 2007 for a street-racing crash that critically injured a passenger in the car he was driving (a Toyota Supra owned by his father). While at TMZ, Walters frequently published stories about the Hogan family, despite the fact that his father Charles, a retired assistant sheriff from Orange County, and Nick Hogan once explored partnering on a California-based auto racing team.

If Loyd was plotting to cash in quickly after the leaks to TMZ and The Dirty, that did not occur. The stories about the Hogan sex tape did not generate much heat, and the wrestler vowed to pursue civil and criminal cases for the “outrageous invasion of privacy.” So Loyd halted his nascent marketing efforts and stood down for six months.

Then Gawker happened.

On October 4, 2012, the web site published a 1:41 excerpt from a Hogan-Heather Clem sex tape. The footage was accompanied by a blow-by-blow description of the entire 30:17 video from which the clip was taken. Editor A.J. Daulerio wrote, “hyperbole aside, it’s a goddamn masterpiece.” The video arrived at the Gawker office just days after the agent for Mike “Cowhead” Calta, a former Clem producer, contacted Daulerio to say that a client had a “very significant” DVD that he wanted to send to him. At the time, Calta and Clem were feuding and in the midst of a “radio war,” a hoary broadcast tradition.

Soon after Gawker uploaded the Hogan video, Walters contacted Loyd. The two quickly agreed on a deal. Loyd would send clips from his tapes and a transcript he had created. TMZ would pay $8500 for the material and make the check out to Lori Burbridge, an acquaintance of Loyd’s, so that his identity could be shielded. While TMZ had no intention of posting the Hogan sex clips, the site was eager to disclose their contents.

In an October 9 post, Walters reported on the final minutes of one of the Hogan videos. “Moments after the deed is done and Hulk leaves,” Walters wrote, Todd Clem entered the bedroom and declared, “If we ever did want to retire, all we’d have to do is use this footage.” The TMZ story added that Heather Clem replied, “You’d never do that.” Her husband concurred, saying, “I wouldn’t do that, you’d be the biggest rat, you’d be dead.”

Walters reported that Clem considered the video a possible “goldmine” that could feather his post-radio retirement. The Walters story left TMZ readers with the impression that the Clems believed the tape’s value was rooted in its depiction of the paunchy Hogan, then in his mid-50s, having sex.

But Walters curiously omitted the final six words of Clem’s quote. They were not only the most newsworthy part of the sex tape, but posed an existential threat to Hogan’s career if published. When Clem entered his bedroom after Hogan departed, he said, “If we ever did want to retire, all we’d have to do is use this footage of him talking about black people.” The shock jock was referring to racist comments--which included use of the N-word--that the wrestler made after trysting with Heather Clem.

By excluding any reference to Hogan’s racist remarks, Walters had spared the wrestler a career implosion. Perhaps this was a classic tabloid “catch and kill” for a preferred source/subject of stories. Walters was so close to the Hogan camp that the wrestler’s attorney later told the FBI that he wanted to keep the TMZ producer’s “identity confidential because he is a good source of information.” This was on top of the fact that Walters’s father had explored going into business with Hogan’s son.

But maybe Walters had another reason for not publicly exposing Hogan’s “talking about black people.”

According to Loyd, who sold TMZ the Hogan sex tape excerpts, Walters recommended that the radio host hire a “good friend” of his: Keith Davidson. The lawyer, Walters explained, was experienced in negotiating the sale of sex tapes back to celebrities. Loyd recalled Walters saying that Davidson was “real solid” and “keeps everything on the low, nothing will ever get out, your name won’t get out.”

Loyd said that before Walters gave him Davidson’s contact details, the TMZ employee delivered an admonition: “If you ever tell anybody that I gave you this information, I’ll deny it to the bitter end.” Recalling that conversation with Walters, Loyd now says, “Looking back on it, it seems particularly odd.”

Nearly simultaneously, Walters had covered up for Hogan on TMZ and then effectively sicced Davidson on the wrestler. It was an audacious heel turn.

Loyd first called Davidson on October 10, a day after TMZ published Walters’s story on the Hogan sex tapes. Before dialing the lawyer, Loyd blocked his Florida number. Davidson made a persuasive pitch to Loyd about his experience handling similar sex tape matters. Vouched for by Walters, Davidson seemed like a “big swinging dick attorney from Beverly Hills” who “talked a big game,” said Loyd.

Believing that any future sale of the Hogan tapes would be a “completely legal thing” negotiated by a lawyer who “does this all the time,” Loyd hired Davidson. The plan was for Davidson to try and negotiate a settlement with Hogan’s representatives, while keeping the identity of his client secret.