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Paula Probe Continues

Hollywood- The Fox network says an “independent counsel” is investigating claims by an ex-American Idol contestant that celebrity judge Paula Abdul privately coached him while they carried on a secret, off-camera romance.

Questions about the biggest scandal to hit last season’s most-watched show on US television dominated the opening of the network’s annual press tour as newly installed Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori faced TV critics.

He said the investigation began soon after former Idol finalist Corey Clark went public with his allegations on a special edition of the news magazine Prime-time Live, carried in May by rival network ABC.

While the probe is “winding down,” it may not be completed before production begins on the upcoming fourth season of American Idol, set to air in January 2006, Mr Liguori said.

For now, the Fox executive said he expected Abdul, a former hit-making pop singer, to return to the show even if the investigation was still under way when auditions open for the next crop of contestants on Aug. 18.

“At this point, we have nothing that specifically says she shouldn’t be showing up for work,” he said.Abdul’s future

Mr Liguori also seemed to suggest that Abdul’s future with the show might ultimately hinge on whether the integrity of the talent contest was compromised rather than on whether Clark’s allegations proved true.

“The sanctity of the competition is first and foremost,” he said when pressed by reporters on where Fox draws the line in the conduct of judges.

“The line is whether or not it affects the outcome of the competition.”

Clark, 25, an aspiring singer, claims that Abdul, 43, had given him special guidance, money for expensive clothes and even a haircut while they engaged in a clandestine love affair before he was kicked off the show during its second season for concealing a prior arrest record.

At the time, Abdul called Clark “an admitted liar and opportunist who engages in unlawful activities” and said: “I never respond to lies.”

Fox and producers of American Idol promised then to look into evidence of improper conduct, but suggested that Clark was motivated by his desire for publicity.

The show went on to post its most watched season to date, helping the News Corp owned network to finish its first year as the number one US network among the young adult viewers most prized by advertisers.

Nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to the show’s finale on May 25.’Independent counsel’

Mr Liguori said the inquiry was being conducted by an “independent counsel” who lacked any ties to the show.

But he acknowledged that the attorney, who was not named, had been hired by Fox and producers of Idol, saying, “it’s as independent as one can make it”.

Mr Liguori dismissed criticism of Abdul’s sometimes fawning behaviour toward contestants in general, saying, “the audience loves Paula”.

He defended Fox’s recent decision to cast her on the new reality show, So You Think You Can Dance, saying the one-time pro-cheerleader is “one of the world’s most recognised choreographers”.


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