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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Two men were cleared Monday of trying to blackmail Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe.

Judge John Williams ordered a jury at Coffs Harbor District court to acquit the men, saying prosecutors failed to prove they demanded money from Crowe in return for destroying a video of the star brawling outside a bar in the eastern Australian town.

Philip Cropper and Malcolm Mercer, both 38, had pleaded innocent to charges of trying to extort money from Crowe using the video, which showed the ``Gladiator'' star fighting with a man and arguing with a woman outside a nightclub in 1999.

The pair had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted.

Williams said Cropper and Mercer's claim that they would go to the media with the video if Crowe didn't pay them $114,000 was not a ``specific threat.''

``There seems to be not much doubt in this matter that money was an object,'' Williams said. ``But what (the prosecution) has to prove was there was a demand for money and that demand was supported by a threat.''

Mercer and Cropper smiled broadly as the judge ordered the jury to acquit them. Outside the court, they said they'd consider mounting a case against the police for malicious prosecution.

``We've always been of the belief that we should never have been here in the first place,'' Cropper told reporters.

Crowe, 38, wasn't present during the trial and did not immediately comment on the outcome. He was believed to be in Mexico shooting a film.

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LONDON (AP) _ Elton John lost his case Monday at the Court of Appeal, which he'd hoped would revive his multimillion-dollar negligence claim against his former accountants.

John claimed that his manager, not he, should pay the costs for tours _ which amounted to $10.5 million. He sought to revive a suit against PricewaterhouseCoopers for allegedly failing to advise him that he was paying touring costs.

Lord Justice Robert Walker, who joined one of the two other justices in ruling against the singer, said the case illustrated ``a melancholy truth.''

``The fact that very large sums of money are to change hands under a commercial agreement, and further fact that it has been negotiated and prepared over a long period by well-remunerated professionals, provide no guarantee of competent drafting,'' Walker said.

He said the court had to make sense of the agreement as best it could and concluded that the 1986 contract with the management company John Reid Enterprises did not obligate it to bear the tour expenses.

At a hearing last year, the High Court dismissed John's claim of negligence against Andrew Haydon, former managing director of John Reid Enterprises.

John did not appeal that verdict, and he had previously reached a settlement of his action against Reid.

The performer admitted he enjoyed a ``somewhat lavish lifestyle'' and had spent $42 million on personal expenses _ including $410,000 on flowers _ over a 20-month period.

A High Court judge described the 55-year-old as ``clearly a man of an uncommonly generous disposition'' and a man of great intelligence, but who had ``little or no interest in business matters.''

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MIAMI (AP) _ Rosie O'Donnell said she's begun to feel the sting of leading the fight to allow gays and lesbians to adopt children in Florida.

She said a medical association recently rescinded an invitation to speak at their convention.

``They said they were afraid of protesters,'' O'Donnell told 200 women Sunday at the two-day Wise Women Weekend retreat in Miami Beach. ``I'm not used to being considered controversial.''

O'Donnell also responded to her opponents' criticism that her crusade is a gay issue. ``I have no homosexual agenda,'' she said. ``I have a child agenda,''

The 40-year-old talk show host and comedian, who has a home in Miami Beach and has adopted three children outside Florida, said she learned about the ban when she applied to adopt a Florida foster child in her care.

``It stunned me to know that Florida, the state where I live, is the only one that does not allow gay adoptions,'' said O'Donnell, who came out in March.

Florida passed the gay adoption ban in 1977 at a time when entertainer Anita Bryant went on a crusade against a Dade County ordinance protecting homosexuals from discrimination.

Last August, a federal judge in Miami upheld the law in a case brought by two gay men who wanted to adopt foster children already in their care. The decision is being appealed.

O'Donnell's efforts to win support for a possible repeal of the law received little support in the Florida Legislature in March.

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CHINO, Calif. (AP) _ Radio talk show host and four-time Emmy winner George Putnam is appealing a city planning commission decision to approve a poultry slaughterhouse across the street from his ranch home.

``I'm concerned about the slaughter of that many chickens at my doorstep,'' said Putnam, a broadcast presence in Southern California since the 1950s. The former TV anchorman cited the fowl odor and foul traffic.

San Diego-based Wing Lee Poultry wants to operate a more than 31,000-square-foot slaughterhouse to process 2,500 chickens per day.

Wing Lee Poultry partner Nguyen Phuong said most of the building will be used for storage of chickens. He added that one truck will bring chickens in the morning and take them out later in the day.

The 87-year-old Putnam hosts an hourlong talk show on KPLS-AM. He has raised horses at his nearly 20-acre ranch since 1962.

His appeal is scheduled to be heard July 16.

``I've seen it go from dirt roads and country fences to a real nice community,'' Putnam told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin of Ontario for Monday's editions. ``Let's not spoil it.''

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LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Television veteran Alan Kirschenbaum is directing his wife, actress Vicki Juditz, in an autobiographical tale about the couple's quest to get pregnant and their decision to turn to a surrogate.

Juditz wrote and performs ``Where Do Babies Come From?'' at the Elephant Theater in Hollywood. The show opened June 7 and runs to July 20.

``As we were struggling through infertility, we thought it was unbearable,'' Kirschenbaum, whose writing, producing and directing credits include TV series such as ``Yes, Dear,'' ``Everybody Loves Raymond,'' and ``Coach,'' said Monday.

``Hopefully,'' Kirschenbaum said in a news release, ``people will come see this show and it will give them strength and inspiration in their own struggle, or make them fully appreciate the magic of their own children.''

Juditz, who has performed several solo pieces for stage, said she likes working with her husband. ``I trust Alan,'' she said. ``As a director, he knows exactly how to help me tap into the emotional heart of a story.''

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RADNOR, Pa. (AP) _ Sarah Jessica Parker, star of HBO's ``Sex and the City,'' calls her pregnancy a ``wonderful surprise.''

Fresh off winning a Golden Globe earlier this year for her role as sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, Parker got the news she was expecting a child in March. She's been married to Matthew Broderick since 1997.

Parker plans to take five months off after ``Sex and the City'' finishes filming its fifth season of eight episodes in July.

``Relaxing is foreign to me,'' the 37-year-old says in the June 29 issue of TV Guide. ``But (soon) I'll have a baby. And my time will be taken up with something far more important than me.''

Producers have decided not to include Parker's pregnancy in the show's plot. Instead, Carrie Bradshaw will get a book deal during the season.

``Carrie is the eternal single girl,'' executive producer Michael Patrick King said. ``Sarah Jessica is having a baby; Carrie Bradshaw is having a cocktail.''

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ST. JOHNS, Antigua, (AP) _ A concert in Antigua by Grammy-winning R&B singer Alicia Keys was canceled because the concert's promoters didn't pay her appearance fees, her agent said.

The concert, scheduled for Friday night, was advertised as the first of a Caribbean tour. The amount of the contract was reported to be $60,000.

``The promoters ... did not live up to their contractual obligations,'' said Keys' agent, Rob Light of the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Creative Artists Agency, in a letter sent to Antigua Junior Finance Minister Asot Michael.

``Their total disregard for the agreement left us great concern as to the viability of the production, ticketing, and security,'' Light said.

Concert promoters in Antigua, Tower Promotions, blamed co-promoters Itchi Baba of Trinidad and Baby Brother of Miami for the failure to pay.

The co-promoters did not say why they failed to pay. But Itchi Baba manager Al Taylor and Clarence Smith of Baby Brother said on Thursday in a press release that they approached the government of Antigua and Barbuda for assistance in salvaging the show.

By that time Keys' management refused to continue and requested the show be postponed, the release said.

Light said the Antiguan government ``has been incredible in trying to resolve this unfortunate situation'' and the government would like ``to try and reschedule (the) show for September.'' The government did not comment on the matter.

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Angela Bassett turned down a lead role in the movie ``Monster's Ball'' because she believed an affair the character had was demeaning and stereotypical, the actress said.

``It's about character, darling,'' she told Newsweek for the July 1 issue, which goes on newsstands Monday. ``I wasn't going to be a prostitute on film. I couldn't do that because it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality.''

The actress made it clear that she didn't mean to criticize Halle Berry, who starred in the movie as a troubled waitress who had an affair with her husband's executioner. Berry won an Oscar for the role.

Bassett was one of several actresses who passed on the role in ``Monster's Ball.''

``It's about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later,'' the 43-year-old said. ``I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.''

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ It wasn't his first job choice, but at least the Pets.com sock puppet hasn't joined the high-tech unemployment line.

One of the most recognizable icons of the dot-com era has a new agent and has inked a new deal for a California financing company.

The puppet is now represented by Hakan & Associates, Inc., the same company orchestrating the comeback of Taco Bell mascot Gidgey the Famous Chihuahua. It's just signed on as the mascot for 1-800-Bar None, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based company that provides car financing for people with bad credit.

The sock puppet has been out of work since online pet store Pets.com was forced to shut down for lack of funds in November 2000. Hakan Enterprises, Inc. bought the rights to the icon for $125,000 during the Pets.com liquidation.

``It is not often that a company will adopt the mascot of a defunct company,'' said Christina Duffney of The Direct Marketing Association. ``Such a company runs the risk of being associated with a business that wasn't a success.''

Duffney said the sock puppet may be a different case since it generated a lot of attention on its own and many people did not associate it with Pets.com.

``It will be interesting to see how the business uses the puppet and if they succeed in associating the puppet with the company,'' she said.

The sock puppet will be featured in a series of television ads for 1-800-Bar None beginning in July.