Michael Russell claims organization's members accepted gifts and trips in exchange for nominations
On the eve of the Golden Globes, Michael Russell has sued the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) for $2 million in lost salary and additional damages, charging the organization that runs the awards show with fraud and corrupt practices.
Among the abuses listed in the former Globes' publicist's suit are several examples of members abusing their positions including:
>> Accepting money, vacations, and gifts from studios in exchange for nominating their films.
>> Selling media credentials and red carpet space for profit.
>> Accepting payment from studios and producers for lobbying other members for awards nominations.
>> HFPA consistently directed Russell to bury stories in the press regarding HFPA's unethical practices.
In the suit filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Russell maintains that the questionable behavior could endanger the Globes' non-profit status.
"These actions perpetrate a fraud on the public, to which HFPA holds itself out as a charitable organization dedicated to recognizing excellence in film," the lawsuit read.
It continued: "…Many HFPA members abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements which amount to a 'payola' scheme."
The actions, the suit charges, "threaten the credibility of the Golden Globes."
A spokesperson for the HFPA did not immediately respond to TheWrap's requests for comment. A spokesman for NBC had no comment.
In addition to the HFPA, the organization president Philip Berk is also named in the suit. Also named with Russell as plaintiffs are his company the Michael Russell Group, Cinepoint Productions, and fellow publicist Stephen Locascio.
Russell ran press for the popular awards show for 17 years before resigning abruptly as the organization's publicist last March. In a letter obtained exclusively by TheWrap, Russell wrote to Berk a month before his exit that unless the organization cleaned up its business practices, it could jeopardize its lucrative television deals.
In the suit Russell claims that he consistently asked Berk to end these "unethical and potentially illegal activities."
Russell says that Berk terminated his contract in retaliation for his letter raising concerns about the threats posed to the organization's reputation by individuals trying to profit from their status as HFPA members.
Oddly, Russell's job over nearly two decades involved defending the HFPA from the very claims he now cites in his own lawsuit. Many investigative stories over the years have singled out the organization for practices that might call into question its non-profit status; the organization has responded over the years by tightening its rules, but has not responded to criticisms that the organization is a closely-held clique that is almost impossible to join.
The Globes' television contracts are cited in the 35-page filing as evidence of Russell's expert handling of the Globes. Russell says that his organization played a key role in helping the HFPA get a new $26 million annual broadcast deal with NBC to air the show from 2012 to 2018. That's up from the $12 million the network previously paid for the awards show's rights.
Ironically, the NBC deal is at the center of a separate legal dispute between the HFPA and the show's producer Dick Clark Productions. In that suit, also unfolding just days before Sunday's broadcast, the HFPA maintains that the deal with NBC is invalid because Dick Clark negotiated the pact without its consent.
Hosted by Ricky Gervais, this year's show airs Jan. 16 on NBC. Given all the lawsuits surrounding the controversial organization, the awards show will be hard-pressed to match the legal drama taking place off-screen.
Sharon Waxman contributed to this story.