SAG vote redux?

Staff knew of irregularities, hearing told

It’s looking more likely that SAG members are going to see a rerun of the Melissa Gilbert-Valerie Harper matchup.

In closed-door meetings, top Screen Actors Guild execs have testified before the SAG elections committee that they knew of procedural irregularities in advance and later participated in cover-ups. The panel must now decide if these statements have enough weight to justify overturning the election results. Should the SAG panel uphold the vote, the election would almost certainly come under Labor Dept. scrutiny as a result of Guild members’ and candidates’ appeals.

The guild recently held four days of closed hearings in Gotham and L.A., in which a five-member election committee is trying to determine whether to order a rerunning of the bitterly fought election.

The disclosures likely will become critical parts of the decision.

One exec admitted she participated in a three-month cover-up of plans that would give New York members two extra days of voting. Two others testified that removing a required signature line from Gotham ballots was discussed seven months before the election, but insisted the decision to excise it was made independently by a Sequoia Voting Systems exec.

SAG has refused to comment on violations since its Oct. 30 statement saying only that the election was conducted within Dept. of Labor rules.

Extended voting period

Last week, national director of guild governance Clinta Dayton admitted she was aware in July of plans for a Nov. 2 deadline for the 24,815 New York ballots — two days later than the remaining 73,800 ballots — but never disclosed those plans to members and candidates outside N.Y. At the time, Dayton was national director of administration and branch relations and assistant Hollywood exec director.

Under questioning, she said the failure to announce the discrepancy in dates had slipped past her due to other responsibilities.

“That’s what we pay you to do,” one committee member told Dayton, who received $123,424 in salary last year.

The issue of the unannounced two extra days for voting has been key to several challenges of national office races from Hollywood-based candidates who claim they were never told about the plan by SAG staff until the final days of the election.

Presidential candidate Eugene Boggs pointed out several weeks ago that an exceptionally large number of votes — 972, more than 15% of total New York ballots cast — were received on the last of the 20 days of voting. That pattern, Boggs noted, was at variance with normal guild voting patterns, where most ballots are mailed back shortly after receipt followed by a steady decline through the voting period.

“The two extra days of voting afforded uniquely to New York voters violates a union member’s right to be treated equally in union voting,” he said in his challenge.

In addition, Boggs has contended that the presence of the signature line on the 73,800 non-New York ballots acted as a disincentive to vote.

Boggs also has blasted SAG staff in his challenge, asserting, “Likely staff negligence in administering the election may have, in fact, been a form of campaigning for a candidate” that would violate SAG personnel rules and federal law. He has claimed that branch staffers outside Hollywood and New York preferred Gilbert as president because of dissatisfaction with William Daniels, who had endorsed Harper to succeed him.

Last week’s testimony also included admissions from deputy national exec directors John Sucke and Sallie Weaver that a proposal to remove the signature line from New York ballots was discussed in March by Sucke at a guild governance relations committee meeting. But both execs backed up a contention by Sequoia exec Robbin Johnson that Johnson had acted on his own in removing the signature line and instructions to sign, directly violating a SAG-Sequoia agreement that had been signed in August.

Sequoia then counted votes without signatures, again in violation of its agreement with SAG.

Staff moves questioned

The testimony adds to already disclosed instances of questionable SAG staff conduct, such as Johnson’s admission that he had notified guild staff of the signature-line violation Oct. 16, leading to a two-week cover-up of the info by SAG staff members. To further add to the confusion, SAG staffers told the elections committee in a pre-election hearing that the signature requirement was dropped by SAG prior to the 1997 election but the change was never communicated to guild members.

SAG CEO Bob Pisano issued a memo to staffers Sept. 17 that they should remain neutral in the election, saying the action was standard operating procedure and asserting he was not aware of any improper conduct. Dayton had issued a similar memo in August.

Dayton, Sucke and Weaver all received promotions during October as part of a staff reorganization by Pisano.

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