In the hive of high-powered attorneys and financial advisors that buzzes around Michael Jackson, the quiet men in subdued suits can't help but stand out.
They don't practice law or negotiate Hollywood deals. The men belong to the Nation of Islam, the black separatist group that remains stubbornly at the center of speculation about who is running the pop star's affairs.
For 3 1/2 months, starting with the tabloids and Web-based gossip columnists, numerous media outlets have reported that Nation of Islam members took control of the Jackson camp after his November arrest on child molestation charges in Santa Barbara County.
Jackson's attorneys and business managers have repeatedly dismissed those accounts as wild exaggerations. They and others said the organization headed by Louis Farrakhan has provided security for Jackson and is merely one of many sources of counsel.
"They're another voice at the table," said a longtime Jackson confidant. He was among those interviewed who spoke on condition of anonymity, due to fears of alienating Jackson or violating a court-imposed gag order in the molestation case.
"Michael Jackson is in charge; that's who I report to," the confidant said.
Farrakhan and his chief of staff, Leonard Muhammad, did not respond to interview requests. Muhammad, who is Farrakhan's son-in-law, serves as the Nation of Islam's point man for Jackson.
In late December, the Nation of Islam issued a statement that said it had "no official business or professional relationship" with Jackson. The statement has not been updated, but it seems to have underplayed Muhammad's continuing role in Jackson's inner circle.
People close to Jackson say Muhammad works for him in roughly the same capacity he does for Farrakhan at the Nation of Islam's Chicago headquarters -- as a trusted lieutenant who has limited influence over larger matters, but attends to his boss' day-to-day needs and acts as a gatekeeper for some business associates seeking access.
"He's helping Michael with a multiple of different things," one Jackson aide said. "He's certainly not interfered with banking relationships or entertainment relationships.... If Leonard is there it's because Michael wants him to be there."
The aide said Muhammad sat in on a Beverly Hills meeting of Jackson's managers a couple of weeks ago.
"Leonard's got a perspective, and he does speak to Michael on a regular basis," the aide said. "He also can insist on getting the right things done."
Lawyers on the sidelines of the courtroom contest say prospective jurors in fairly conservative Santa Barbara County might not look favorably on Jackson's Nation of Islam ties.
"I don't see the point of it," said Steve Balash, a Santa Barbara attorney. "Why call undue attention to yourself?"
A person assisting in Jackson's defense said he had told the singer, to no avail, that the Nation of Islam's presence could create an image problem. "I offered him my opinion, but ... ," he said, shrugging in a gesture of futility.
The Nation of Islam advocates an independent black nation and opposes interracial marriage. Farrakhan has often been accused of anti-Semitism. He once called Judaism a "gutter religion."
Tony Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam mosque in Los Angeles, said the media have shown a bias against his faith in their reporting on the Jackson connection.
"It's not fair until you all start asking the Jews what role they're playing in Michael's life," Tony Muhammad said in a brief telephone interview, referring to unspecified music executives who are Jewish.
A Jackson intimate said the performer may have found solace in the Nation of Islam as a black man who believes a white-dominated justice system is harassing him. He also said the group has acted responsibly on Jackson's behalf.
"I have not seen anything nefarious," he said. "Nothing crazy."
Jackson, 45, has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of engaging in lewd and lascivious acts with a boy under 14, and to two counts of plying the youngster with an intoxicant.
The Santa Barbara County district attorney's office is preparing to present its evidence to a grand jury. If the panel returns an indictment, Jackson will stand trial.
Meanwhile, penetrating the Jackson sanctum has never been harder. He has long been known for his elaborate measures to avoid chance encounters with the public and the media, and for his penchant for requiring employees to sign confidentiality contracts forbidding disclosure of their duties. And now the gag order prohibits anyone involved in the case from discussing it.
The information vacuum has fueled rumors, many of them focusing on the Nation of Islam. Among the latest is that most of the Jackson security detail -- estimated by insiders at 10 men and up -- has withdrawn, perhaps for financial or tactical reasons.
The insiders say Jackson has paid the Nation of Islam, although they could not provide dollar amounts or other particulars about the arrangement.
"I really don't know," said a person working on Jackson's defense. "They're certainly not consulting with me about it."
A second Jackson ally said there isn't much need for heavy security at this time. "We're just laying low," he said.
The Nation of Islam members were most visible before, during and immediately after Jackson's arraignment in January. In their signature suits and with solemn demeanors, they ushered Jackson into the Santa Maria courthouse and handled crowd control at a post-arraignment party he threw for fans at his Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos.
Jackson has not made a court appearance since then.
Brian Oxman, a Santa Fe Springs attorney who has represented Jackson and his siblings in civil disputes, said the singer has been a friend of Farrakhan for years, but the two are not "extremely close."
Oxman said Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam officials are part of Jackson's "rainbow of associates."
"They are very supportive," he said.
Leonard Muhammad, who is in his late 50s, is married to Farrakhan's daughter Donna. He helped run several toiletries companies affiliated with the Nation of Islam, businesses that allegedly failed to pay creditors and, in some instances, tax authorities, according to lawsuits and other records.
A high-placed Jackson advisor described Leonard Muhammad as a "nice enough guy. I think he has Michael's best interests at heart."