In the lawsuit filed Thursday night by a former Golden Globes publicist, Philip Berk, the controversial head of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, comes in for serious charges of personal corruption and “despicable conduct.”
The lawsuit, filed by Michael Russell, validates criticisms that have dogged the HFPA for years — that Berk has repeatedly rebuffed attempts to open up the membership to a wider number of people, and to halt corrupt practices.
It states that Berk would not do so because it would endanger his own perks as an HFPA member.
“Berk refused to do so, because he and the HFPA were profiting from the existing arrangements,” the lawsuit states.
Berk responded on Friday: "The organization is not expanded simply because the press conference model for interviews would be impossible with a larger organization. Additionally, with multiple journalists working for competing publications, the members would be pitted against one another and their jobs would suffer."
The lawsuit also alleges general corruption and fraudulent practices by the HFPA as a whole, saying that the group can be bribed by studios and networks for nominations, takes money to lobby others and sells media credentials to the ceremony and red carpet.
Specifically, the suit alleges that Berk has sought kickbacks from sponsors, even calling NBC – which airs the Globes telecast – to demand he be given a commission for a $2 million ad buy by Chrysler.
The lawsuit further alleges that Berk sought to cut Russell out of a deal in which Chrysler acted as a charitable sponsor, and that Berk has repeatedly rebuffed Russell’s attempts to encourage the group to clean up corrupt practices.
In a statement to TheWrap, the HFPA and Berk denied the allegations, saying:
"Michael Russell and Steve Locasio's allegations are completely without merit. This is no more than the case of a disgruntled former consulting firm, whose contract was not renewed, attempting to take advantage once again of the Globe's international stage for their own gain."
NBC had no comment on the lawsuit.
But the lawsuit offers numerous details of the allegations.
Russell claims that he brought Chrysler in as a charitable sponsor for the Stars for a Cause charity, but that Berk wanted to cut them out of the process, after Chrysler paid $100,000 and donated cars to drive stars to the ceremony.
“Berk was upset, as he wanted to receive benefits directly from Chrysler, and Stars was only giving the proceeds from the charity campaign to charity and not to Berk.”
However, other knowledgeable insiders point out that Russell had an ethical conflict himself; Stars for a Cause was his client, and benefitted from his connection to the Globes. Those insiders said that Russell took a hefty commission from the $100,000 donation.
Berk’s desire for personal gain “is evidenced by a phone call from Berk to NBC marketing in New York, demanding that Berk be paid a commission for referring Chrysler to NBC (who had paid DCP a $2,000,000 advertising fee for the promotion with Chrysler as part of the Golden Globes after-show), and that Chrysler provide him with a car and driver for the month of January 2010,” the lawsuit alleges.
“These requests were denied.”
Finally, the lawsuit alleges that Berk and another member, Frances Schoeberger, defamed Russell and his partner, Steve Locascio, to entertainment media outlets like ET and Access Hollywood.
Berk directed Shoenberger (sic) to tell Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and NBC that Russell and Locascio were liars, that they had been sued for fraud, that they had been terminated due to a fraud lawsuit, and that they were reciving bribes and kickbacks."
It added: “Berk engaged in despicable conduct when making these statements. Berk acted intentionally, with malice and oppression.”