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.
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.
Michael Jackson timeline
Rumors Swirl Around Pop Star Jackson's Link to Nation of Islam
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