Power Struggle at Neverland

Neverland Drama | Radio Killed the Soap Star?

Power Struggle at Neverland

If there's one thing you'd think Michael Jackson would have learned during his 18-month legal ordeal, it's this: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

But this weekend proved that nothing has changed at the Neverland ranch, where the backstairs antics of all the main residents continue to be worthy of a soap opera.

At the center of this melodrama is Michael's youngest brother Randy Jackson.

Some Jackson insiders say a lot of Michael's problems in the last year have been the result of Randy's horrific management skills. It's hard to disagree with them.

It was Randy who unceremoniously fired Michael's longtime PR guy, Bob Jones. The result was that Jones turned on Michael and testified for the prosecution in the child molestation trial.

Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen used some of Jones' testimony in his closing argument, reminding the jury that Jones claimed he saw Michael lick the head of a 13-year-old boy on an airplane back in 1993. Not good.

It was also Randy who cut off payments to Jackson's loyal aide-de-camp and frequent moneylender Marc Schaffel. That was about a year ago.

Jackson had been paying back money he owed Schaffel in monthly installments. After Randy abrogated that arrangement without warning, Schaffel sued Michael for $4 million. That case is now proceeding.

Randy also refused to authorize payment to a Louisiana law firm hired to defend Michael against a bogus claim of child molestation. Now the firm is suing him for $47,000.

Randy Jackson — not to be confused with the genial and popular "American Idol" judge with the same name — is one unpopular guy at Neverland. He is said to be at odds with the two women Michael has trusted most over the years: loyal assistant Evvy Tavasci and longtime nanny Grace Rwarmba.

Randy's heavy-handedness is said to be the reason their pop-star sister, Janet Jackson, departed Neverland on Friday evening after she accompanied Michael to court that day. Janet is said to be gone now and is not expected to return for the verdict.

Randy is kind of a hothead, too. Twice in the last month, he has gotten surly with reporters after court. One time it was with me; another time it was with Reuters' Dan Whitcomb.

But another family member, brother Jermaine Jackson, gets the prize for hottest temper of last week. Spotting writer and prosecution witness Stacy Brown, who's co-writing Bob Jones' book about life with Michael, Jermaine shouted, "You don't turn on the family" — as if he were Sonny Corleone.

But Randy is the one who has exhibited the Mafia mentality when it comes to protecting the family. Over the last year, he has managed to alienate both longtime Jackson music lawyer John Branca and more recent financial ally Al Malnik.

Now Michael thinks Malnik wants to have him killed, according to my source. And he thinks Branca is somehow conspiring against him — he just hasn't yet figured out how.

In the meantime, Branca successfully negotiated the end of Michael's recording contract at Sony. Malnik loaned the singer $5 million, interest-free, and last year restructured most of his business deals without charging a fee. Jackson speaks to neither man now.

Over the weekend, a power struggle involving Randy as well as family patriarch Joseph Jackson seems to have been almost as intriguing as Michael's many trips to the hospital.

One wonders why Michael doesn't have a private physician who can treat him at home rather than have to put on these huge public displays all the time.

Joseph Jackson, whom Michael is said mostly to fear, spent part of the weekend recording interviews at the nearby Chumash Casino Hotel with celebrity journalist Daphne Barak. The interviews will be sold internationally.

When I asked "Jackson family lawyer" Debra Opri about the appropriateness of Joe Jackson exploiting Michael's misery, she snapped, "I won't dignify that comment."

Joseph Jackson is also responsible for adding activist Dick Gregory to the cast of characters at Neverland. Joe, said to be concerned about Michael's health, brought in Gregory to oversee Michael's nutrition.

Although Gregory is a revered figure in many circles, he is not a licensed nutritionist or doctor of any kind. Nevertheless, it was he who brought in a blood-circulation machine on Saturday that Michael was supposed to get hooked up to.

I am told that Michael declined, perhaps showing that he's not quite as crazy as everyone thinks.

Gregory, who quickly morphed into a new Jackson family spokesman over the weekend, is not staying at Neverland, but at a local hotel, presumably on Michael's dime.

Meanwhile, defense attorney Tom Mesereau was able to put a stop to at least one thing: Jermaine and Tito had planned on doing a TV interview last night in which they were going to call the whole fiasco with Michael "racist."

Mesereau, my sources say, put the kibosh on that as soon as he heard about it. Mesereau has been equally insistent, I am told, about keeping unindicted co-conspirator Frank Tyson from doing any more interviews while the jury is in deliberations.

But still, the talk of the court on Thursday and Friday was the appearance, in the overflow media room, of a woman named Tonya who is said to work for Randy. She and another woman who attends court, named Carmella, are said to be Randy's past and present girlfriends and 'writers' for his Web site, mjjsource.com.

Both Tonya and Carmella are said to be disrupting what's left of the peace at Neverland, picking fights with Grace, the nanny, and others while Michael remains apart from the melee.

Sources around the 2,700-acre estate also say Randy isn't actually staying on the property.

"There's a whole group — Randy, Carmella, Tonya, all the security guys who bring Michael to court — staying at a local hotel," reports my source. "The bills are going to Michael, and they're running about $30,000 a month."

Double deluxe suites at the Chumash, which is where the gang has been spotted, run between $300 and $400 a night.

Oldies No Longer Goodies

There's yet another reason to listen to satellite radio and abandon "terrestrial" radio forever.

On Friday, Infinity Broadcasting pulled the plug on New York City's beloved, three-decades-old station, WCBS-FM. They also fired broadcasting legends Bruce "Cousin Brucie" Morrow and Harry Harrison, among others, and jettisoned Monkee Micky Dolenz right after he finished his 100th broadcast.

Infinity has replaced WCBS's mix of oldies from the '50s to the '70s with junk from the '80s and '90s. The new format is called "Jack," which is some kind of reference to cheese, if I am not mistaken.

This means that Infinity has now managed to kill off two New York radio institutions. The other one was rock station WNEW-FM, which switched to a talk format a few years ago, then to dance music after that failed.

Over at CBS-TV's long-running daytime drama, "Guiding Light," the word is not good for veteran actors who have been with the show for 20 to 25 years.

The show's "dean," beloved lead and Emmy-nominated actor Jerry verDorn, who's played Ross Marler since 1979 with uncommon class, has apparently been shown the door in a cost-cutting move. VerDorn, according to the Internet Movie Database, is at the ancient age of 55.

Casts and crews at "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," each owned by mega conglomerate Procter & Gamble, were recently told they were getting 15 percent pay cuts across the board.