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Poisoned at the Source


O'Brien began checking Zeltser's Website frequently to find out what new smears against him had been posted -- Zeltser put a sign on the site saying O'Brien was its most frequent visitor. O'Brien began calling Anna Reid, Zeltser's ex-wife and a lawyer. She first told O'Brien she would talk, but then she didn't return repeated calls, so he decided to surprise her at home, in a high-rise on West 76th Street. The doorman told him the intercom was broken and that he should go right up. "I thought, great, that means I will be able to knock on her door," O'Brien says -- she would have to talk to him.

He raced upstairs and rang the doorbell. Feet shuffled to the door and the eyehole slid open. A voice behind the door said, "It's him." O'Brien raised his voice. "It's Tim O'Brien from the New York Times. Are you going to talk to me?" Silence. Finally, he left.

The next day, a letter from Reid arrived at the Times. Calling O'Brien's behavior "bordering on being deranged," Reid complained that O'Brien had been "yelling something and ringing and banging on the door." When she looked through the eyehole, she saw him "moving back and forth and appearing unbalanced."

O'Brien was at his desk, about to leave another message for Reid, when a desk clerk on duty at the 24th Precinct called. "I have a Ms. Anna Reid here, and she says you are harassing her," he said. "Tell me, when do you people stop?"

As O'Brien pursued the story, letters continued to pour in. O'Brien says that one evening at about seven, he called looking for Zeltser at the home of a friend and associate of Zeltser's named Svetlana Moysievich. "I presume that Mr. O'Brien is over the age of 11," she wrote in her letter of complaint the next day. "If he gets off by calling married women at night looking for men other than their husbands, perhaps he should not do that under the auspices of the New York Times."

O'Brien pushed his investigation farther. "I really went to the mat on this one," he says, "It was like a hall of mirrors."

He learned from a friend in Washington that Robert Puglisi, a private investigator hired by Milberg, Weiss, was making inquiries into O'Brien's background, and at a meeting with Weiss he demanded to know if Puglisi was snooping around him.

Meanwhile, O'Brien began receiving calls himself from Jack Palladino, a private investigator hired by lawyers for a suspect in the money-laundering case. Palladino began calling many of Zeltser's friends, too. Soon, letters and stories appeared on Zeltser's Website claiming that a New York Times reporter was working with "gumshoes" hired to squelch the money-laundering story.

At times, O'Brien unwittingly abetted Zeltser's claims. Knowing that Zeltser screened his calls with his answering machine, O'Brien left a message telling him to pick up: "My people on 57th Street tell me you're in your office, Emanuel." Zeltser says he assumed this meant Palladino was watching, and he played the tape of message for other reporters, to prove that O'Brien was after him.

Zeltser began telling stories to other reporters about how O'Brien "went crazy" whenever he heard even the names of his rivals at the Journal. Zeltser had managed to pick up some Journal office gossip about the reasons for O'Brien's departure, and he began passing it on to other reporters, along with theories about O'Brien's "underdeveloped ego" and the impact of his "horrible" divorce.

"This would have been a small story for the business section, but Zeltser's reaction kept upping the ante," O'Brien says. "He clearly gets how he can create this thing, make it look like I am out on a vendetta."

Zeltser, of course, disputes nearly every aspect of O'Brien's story, from their first phone call until their last goodbye. And although I've known O'Brien to be a conscientious reporter, at first I wasn't sure how to reconcile their accounts.

No reporter is perfect. O'Brien can become emotional in the pursuit of a story, and he had clearly become obsessed with Zeltser. In an effort to sort through their conflicting accounts, I tried to reach nearly everyone involved with the story, (including Grigoriev and Bugrov, without success). Zeltser referred me to friends and associates who could back his story, but only Viktor Smolny and Peter Shacker were willing to speak on the record. Once, I passed Oxana Berkounova in Zeltser's office. I also independently met some of O'Brien's sources, and others who found me after his story appeared. They backed his account of events throughout, confirming for me what he heard at each step of the way. They also told stories about Zeltser's fabricating of documents, buttressing those in the lawsuits with Inkombank.

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